Wakefield paper retracted by The Lancet

vaccinePrestigious medical journal The Lancet has formally retracted the paper in which Andrew Wakefield, the doctor behind claims that the MMR vaccine can be linked to autism, first claimed such effects.

The MMR, or measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, came under scrutiny in the late 1990s when Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor, wrote a paper for The Lancet saying that he had linked the vaccine with autism.

The controversy caused a significant drop in vaccination numbers worldwide, with corresponding increases disease outbreaks such as measles (as seen here in New Zealand last year).

The retraction comes in the wake of the UK’s General Medical Council finding last week that Wakefield and two colleagues were guilty of a range of serious breaches in a failure to practice case.

The UK and NZ Science Media Centres have gathered comment from experts.

Helen Petousis-Harris, Director of Research at the Immunisation Advisory Centre and Senior Lecturer in the Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care at the University of Auckland, comments:

“We are pleased to see the strong and clear ruling by the General Medical Council against Andrew Wakefield for his unethical practices and ‘callous disregard’ for children while acting ‘dishonestly’ in carrying out his research. The groundless controversy that followed his media statements around the MMR vaccine has resulted in many preventable cases of disease both internationally and New Zealand. There have been measles outbreaks in NZ as recently as last year. New Zealand still has relatively low uptake of the MMR vaccine with only around 70% of children receiving it at the recommended age. There are still many parents who are concerned about the Wakefield claims. We hope that this news will add further reassurance that the MMR vaccine is not associated with autism or any other developmental problems.

“To quote Jonathan Swift, ‘Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after; so that when men come to be undeceived it is too late: the jest is over and the tale has had its effect.'”

Prof Terence Stephenson, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), comments:

“Measles, mumps and rubella vaccines have all been shown to be safe and UK families are fortunate to have free access to these, which is not true of many parts of the world. The false suggestion of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine has done untold damage to the UK vaccination programme.

“The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health hopes the withdrawal of this publication on scientific grounds helps improve uptake of the MMR vaccine for the UK’s children.

Dr David Elliman, Consultant In Community Child Health at the Great Ormond Street Hospital For Children, comments:

“I feel this is a very reasonable decision. To be fair to the Lancet, they did publish a commentary at the time urging caution that wasn’t picked up. I think the reality of the world today is that academic papers on major public health issues do not remain the property of academia. Therefore it is incumbent on us all in science, in journals and in the media to be very certain of the strength of a study before rushing to publish, and to be aware of the potential effects.”

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, GP and author of two books on autism and the MMR scare, comments:

“Good news – only ten years late!”

Prof Adam Finn, Professor Of Paediatrics at the University of Bristol Medical School, comments:

“This is not before time. Let’s hope this will do something to re-establish the good reputation of this excellent vaccine. And I hope the country can now draw a line under this particular health scare and move onto new opportunities for vaccination.”

Further Information

To talk to any of the experts quoted above contact the Science Media Centre on tel: 04 499 5476 or email: smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz.

Notes to Editors

The Science Media Centre (SMC) is an independent source of expert comment and information for journalists covering science and technology in New Zealand. Our aim is to promote accurate, bias-free reporting on science and technology by helping the media work more closely with the scientific community. The SMC is an independent centre established by the Royal Society of New Zealand with funding from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. The views expressed in this Science Alert are those of the individuals and organisations indicated and do not reflect the views of the SMC or its employees. For further information about the centre, or to offer feedback, please email us at smc@sciencemediacentre.co.nz.