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Chicago Tribune reports fresh misconduct claims in report on Dr Andrew Wakefield

This page is research from an investigation by Brian Deer for The Sunday Times of London into a campaign against the MMR vaccine Go to part I: The Lancet scandal | Go to part II: The Wakefield factor | Go to part III: Solved - the riddle of MMR

In February 2009, the Chicago Tribune was among many US news outlets which reported on the third part of Deer's Sunday Times investigation of Andrew Wakefield, the British former gut surgeon who caused a crisis over vaccine safety with basless allegations linking MMR to autism

February 11 2009

Autism and vaccines: allegations of scientific misconduct

Judith Graham

The charge is explosive: a British doctor who led the first scientific study suggesting a link between autism and the MMR vaccine misrepresented data in a prestigious medical journal.

The allegation appears in an investigation published Sunday in the Times of London and has raced around the world since.

In the Feb. 1998 scientific report in the Lancet, Dr. Andrew Wakefield and a dozen co-authors noted that eight of 12 children who received the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps and rubella) started developing autism-like symptoms within days of being vaccinated.

The assertion, allegedly based on parents’ reports, contributed to a sharp drop in MMR vaccination rates in Britain accompanied by measles outbreaks and the deaths of several children.

But the claim wasn’t backed by evidence, says Brian Deer, the investigative reporter who wrote the Times story. His says his conclusions are based on a review of medical records, confidential documents, communications with parents, and testimony delivered during an ongoing inquiry by Britain’s General Medical Council into Wakefield’s professional conduct.

Deer is in the U.S. this week to deliver a lecture on his work at the University of Michigan's C S Mott Children's Hospital.

His sources indicate that six children had pre-existing problems before getting the MMR shot, Deer told me over the phone today. The Lancet report stated that children's behavioral symptoms started an average 6.3 days after being vaccinated.

Three additional children started evidencing behavioral problems two to five months after they were vaccinated, not within days or weeks. Five children didn’t have regressive autism, as indicated in the study.

Wakefield's theory was that measles in the vaccine caused an inflammatory bowel disease that in turn caused toxins to leak into childrens' system and cause brain damage. Several of the children listed as having bowel disorders in fact had no evidence of abnormalities, Deer alleges.

Wakefield didn’t answer Deer’s request for a response before the articles were published. But separately, he released an extensive refutation of the journalist’s findings earlier this week.

In the six-page statement,Wakefield asserted that his work was scientifically correct, denied misrepresenting data and reasserted that the suggestion of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism was perfectly valid. “There is absolutely nothing either to withdraw or to apologize for in this matter,” he wrote.

“Based upon the parental histories of regression in their children after MMR vaccine, the known link between measles and brain damage including autism and the findings in the children, there was and continues to be every reasonable basis for suspecting a possible link between MMR vaccination and autistic regression,” he insisted.

Other scientists strongly disagree. There’s no credible evidence to support the claim of any association between the MMR vaccine and autism, according to Dr. Gary Freed, director of general pediatrics at the University of Michigan and immediate past chair of the U.S.’s National Vaccine Advisory Committee.

Several researchers have tried and been unable to replicated results published by Wakefield, and numerous large epidemiological studies have shown “absolutely no connection between the MMR vaccine and autism,” Freed said.

This isn’t the first time Deer has raised questions about Wakefield’s work.  Indeed, supporters of Wakefield are convinced he's on a mission to discredit the physician.   Deer says his only interest is in disclosing the truth behind Wakefield's work.

Five years ago, the journalist published stories showing that the physician had been hired by attorneys in 1996 to investigate a possible connection between the MMR vaccine and autism after parents raised concerns.

That fact was not disclosed to the Lancet editors. When the journal learned of it, editors investigated and published a statement expressing regret. “We judge that all this information would have been material to our decision-making about the paper’s suitability, credibility and validity for publication,” wrote Lancet editor Richard Horton in Feb. 2004.

A month later, 10 of the 13 experts listed as co-authors on the Wakefield paper published a separate statement in the Lancet retracing their support for its conclusions. “We wish to make it clear that in this paper no casual link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient,” the experts said, according to the New York Times.

The issue is significant because many parents have grown distrustful of childhood vaccines, believing they’ve been associated with a sharp rise in autism cases. With more parents opting not to immunize their children, more children are contracting preventable and potentially dangerous childhood illnesses such as measles.

Contacted in London, a spokesman for the Lancet said the journal had no comment

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