In 1998, a British physician by the name of Andrew Wakefield joined twelve co-authors in publishing a report in the British medical journal The Lancet describing twelve children with an ASD and gastrointestinal symptoms. In eight cases, parents reported that the symptoms began within two weeks after the children received the MMR vaccine.
Wakefield and his colleagues hypothesized that this might be a new type of autism, characterized by gastrointestinal symptoms and developmental regression caused by the MMR vaccine. No proof was offered of a link, and the study group was so small as to be almost meaningless. Nevertheless, the news media picked up the title of the report ("Vaccine may trigger disease linked to autism"), and the rest, as they say, is history.
Many have heard some version of this basic storyline: Hero physician finds that autism is linked to a vaccination, and is blacklisted by the medical profession for daring to report it. Most, however, do not know what happened next.
In 2004, ten of Wakefield’s co-authors formally retracted their hypothesis, assuring the public that no link between MMR and autism was established. In January 2010, the General Medical Council (GMC), which oversees doctors in Britain, found that Wakefield "showed a callous disregard" for the "distress and pain" of children, and found that in regards to his study his "conduct...was dishonest and irresponsible.
In February 2010, The Lancet formally retracted Wakefield’s controversial paper. Dr. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, said in retracting the paper that "it’s the most appalling catalog and litany of some of the most terrible behavior in any research and is therefore very clear that it has to be retracted."
Dr. Paul Offit, a world-renowned authority on the science of vaccines, and author of Autism’s False Prophets, said it best after The Lancet’s retraction:
[The Lancet retraction] was too little, too late. Wakefield’s study gave birth to the notion that vaccines causes autism. And it was wrong. But it’s hard to close Pandora’s Box once you’ve opened it. It’s hard to unscare people once they’re scared. The paper should never have been published. It has causes people to refuse vaccines, to be hospitalized for vaccine-preventable diseases, to die from those diseases. They’ve retracted it because the information was fraudulent, but the retraction won’t bring those children back.
Finally, on May 24th, the GMC struck Dr. Wakefield from its medical register, banning him from the practice of medicine in the U.K. In total, Wakefield was found guilty of more than 30 charges; among his sins were the falsification of data, fraudulent methodology, failure to have his study of children approved by an ethics committee beforehand, cherry-picking his child subjects, and failing to disclose his financial relationship with attorneys involved in suing on vaccine-based claims, among many others.
Wakefield was found to have taken over $1 million from a personal-injury lawyer representing parents with children diagnosed with an ASD. Wakefield had also applied, prior to his "study" and subsequent condemnation of the triple-component MMR vaccine, for a patent for a new single-virus measles vaccine.
As a result of Wakefield’s claim, the MMR scare attracted so much media attention that MMR immunization rates fell in a number of countries, leading to subsequent outbreaks of mumps and measles in Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, and the U.S. Hundreds have been hospitalized, and as many as several dozen deaths from measles have been reported in unvaccinated children.
Like the claim against thimerosal, Wakefield’s claim against the MMR vaccine made little intuitive sense to scientists and doctors. After all, autism rates in the United Kingdom had already been on the rise prior to the introduction of the MMR vaccine in 1988.
His claim that the virus in the vaccine caused injury to the gut, allowing proteins to pass into the bloodstream that then harmed the brain, could never be demonstrated, despite many tests on the brain and spinal fluid of autistic children. And study upon study – from locales as diverse as the UK, Finland, California, Georgia, Denmark, and Japan – has confirmed that the rate of autism is the same in populations of children having received and having not received the MMR vaccine.
Besides, if the administration of the MMR vaccine led to the development of an ASD, why is it that in not one of the very many countries where MMR is given to children are we seeing an epidemic of autism occurring in four and five year-olds after receiving their second MMR vaccination?
In the United Kingdom, MMR vaccination rates dramatically fell to 81% in the years after Wakefield’s fraudulent "study" was published, and are only now beginning to increase, most recently to 85%. Rates need to be consistently above 90% to create "herd immunity". Meanwhile, measles cases in England and Wales rose steadily until 2009, when the number of cases fell to just more than 1100.
Today, Wakefield’s new book, ironically entitled Callous Disregard and forwarded by none other than Ms. Jenny McCarthy, was released. Pots and kettles come to mind when reading the publishers’ description, which states that "Wakefield endeavors to set the record straight in Callous Disregard. While explaining what really happened, he calls out the organizations and individuals that are acting not for the sake of children affected by autism, but in their own self-interest."
Dr. Wakefield has decided to defend himself in the court of public opinion, having repeatedly lost in the courts of his peers. He is moving from side show of the autism-vaccine debate to the center ring in his own circus. Out to turn his disgrace into publicity, and into profit, Dr. Wakefield is already making the morning show rounds, having appeared with Matt Lauer of the Today Show this past Monday. We can look for more such appearances in the weeks ahead.
Bottom line: Study after study has exonerated MMR. The notion that MMR causes autism has had its day in scientific court. More than 20 subsequent studies from around the globe have been conducted since Wakefield’s paper – ALL consistently found no link. There is no "controversy".