Andrew Wakefield/credit: Getty Images
An infamous 1998 medical journal report by Andrew Wakefield, the doctor whose research sparked international concern over whether or not childhood vaccines cause autism, "was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud," according to Dr. Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal.
The statement appeared in an editorial on BMJ’s Web site.
Wakefield had previously been found guilty by a British panel of acting unethically in his research on autism. Wakefield was the lead author a small-scale 1998 case report published in The Lancet that suggested a link between vaccines and the onset of childhood autism.
The study was immediately seized upon by anti-vaccination advocates, including actress and model Jenny McCarthy.
In January, the General Medical Council (GMC) concluded that Wakefield participated in "dishonesty and misleading conduct" while he conducted the research.
The Lancet reviewed his original study and issued a complete retraction: "It has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al. are incorrect … in particular, the claims in the original paper that children were 'consecutively referred' and that investigations were 'approved' by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record."
Dr. Godlee said the BMJ and investigator Brian Deer uncovered "clear evidence of falsification" of Wakefield’s data. Godlee's editorial states that "Wakefield altered numerous facts about the patients' medical histories in order to support his claim to have identified a new syndrome; how his institution, the Royal Free Hospital and Medical School in London, supported him as he sought to exploit the ensuing MMR scare for financial gain; and how key players failed to investigate thoroughly in the public interest when Deer first raised his concerns."
Dr. Wakefield's research has been questioned for years, and the ethics violations are only the latest nail in the coffin for the claim that vaccines cause autism; several large-scale studies have found no evidence of any link.
Still, the anti-vaccination movement will march on despite the fact that the only scientific research that supports their position was conducted by a discredited, unethical researcher.
As Godlee noted, "perhaps as important as the scare's effect on infectious disease is the energy, emotion, and money that have been diverted away from efforts to understand the real causes of autism and how to help children and families who live with it."