In 1998, a study was published in the Lancet medical journal, purporting to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Entitled “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children”, the study reported on twelve children, who were apparently healthy and happy until they received the childhood immunisation for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). One or two weeks later, according to the study, they developed fever, diarrhoea and developmental regression. Subsequently, they all ended up being severely developmentally delayed.
The lead author was Andrew Wakefield, who received his medical degree in 1985 and trained as a gastrointestinal surgeon with a special interest in inflammatory bowel disease. His study was fairly thorough – biopsies of intestinal tissue were performed on the children. If anything was slightly suspicious, it was the fact that Wakefield held a press conference about the conclusions of the study before they had been peer-reviewed and published. Perhaps, given the significance of the issue, people had accepted the sense of urgency associated with it and had tolerantly glossed over the study author’s lapse of protocol?
When the truth eventually emerged, the paper was retracted. Wakefield was disgraced and lost his medical license in 2010.
Funded by solicitors of the parents, he had been creating a business marketing strategy whereby his tests would provide evidence of a link to the vaccine and support litigation against vaccine manufacturers. Apparently, he had anticipated a revenue stream of $43 million per year from this venture – a fairly hefty inducement to fabricate a few results.
But what happened to the twelve children? When they were eventually tracked down by a few tenacious reporters, it emerged that only one of the twelve actually had autism, only three had non-specific colitis and none of them had any medical record evidence of symptoms in the days to weeks following the MMR vaccination. The whole thing had been totally fabricated.
The damage done by this was very profound. And I guess it’s a salutary reminder that we should never just assume medical studies are driven by a sense of altruism. Nor are they necessarily conducted in accordance with ethical principles.