Andrew Wakefield, the doctor whose research sparked international concern over whether or not childhood vaccines cause autism, was 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 involving 12 children that suggested a link between vaccines and the onset of childhood autism. The study was immediately seized upon by anti-vaccination advocates, including Jenny McCarthy, the actress and model. Since then, McCarthy has spearheaded a global anti-vaccine movement, accusing drug companies of ignoring children’s safety.
Unfortunately, that study has since been revealed as flawed (if not outright faked); the paper was retracted, and ten of Wakefield’s co-authors have repudiated the work. According to an ABC News story
Among the charges, Wakefield was found to have taken blood samples without consent from children at a birthday for his child as part of his research. Ironically, the inquiry also found that Wakefield had failed to disclose that he had a financial interest in a patent for a new measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine he had in development.
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.
So far, Wakefield’s ethical lapses have only cost him his reputation; he may also end up losing his license to practice medicine. But the real cost is in the millions of dollars of research money wasted trying to confirm his claim. All those wasted years, all those wasted dollars could have been spent on genuine, productive leads generated by ethical researchers. The true cost of Wakefield’s dishonesty may never be known.