MMR/Autism doctor clears name, not research

A British doctor found guilty of serious professional misconduct over the MMR controversy has won his High Court appeal against being struck off, but experts stress that the ruling doesn’t reflect a change in thinking regarding the vaccine.

Prof John Walker-Smith, a colleague of Dr Andrew Wakefield,  was involved in research which supposedly identified a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR). Walker-Smith lost his licence to practice in May 2010, along with Dr Andrew Wakefield, following an General Medical Council investigation into their research and formal retraction of a paper published in the Lancet. Now, a high court decision has quashed a professional misconduct ruling arising from the Medical Council investigation.

You can read more in media reports from the BBC News, Guardian and Press Association websites.

Previous SMC comment on the Wakefield ruling is available here and an MMR controversy timeline from UK SMC is available here.

Our colleagues in the UK collected the following response from experts. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to contact a New Zealand expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476;

Dr Helen Bedford, Senior Lecturer, UCL Institute of Child Health said:

“The reversal of the GMC ruling does not alter the fact that there is no link between MMR vaccine and autism and bowel disease; there has never been any sound evidence of a link, indeed there is a strong body of research showing no link. However, many parents who were anxious about the safety of MMR vaccine in the early 2000s decided not to have their children immunised. These children are now teenagers and remain at risk of measles, mumps and rubella. Ironically all these diseases are more serious in older people. Fortunately, it is never too late to have the MMR vaccine and I would strongly recommend that young people who missed out when they were younger have two doses of the vaccine to protect them into their adult years.”

Dr David Elliman, Consultant In Community Child Health, Whittington Health, said:

“Mr Justice Mitting’s decision that the GMC was wrong to strike Professor John Walker-Smith’s name from the medical register has no bearing on the proposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism. There has never been any reliable scientific evidence supporting a link and, as Mr Justice Mitting himself said, now there is a large body of evidence against a link. The vaccine is highly effective and extensive research has shown that serious side effects are uncommon. Because of the scare surrounding the original paper published in 1998, many parents did not have their children immunised and there has been a large increase in cases of measles. The uptake of the vaccine is now improving and we should be able to get measles under control again. It would be a pity if this judgement was taken as supporting a link between MMR and autism, and parents start rejecting the vaccine again.”

Adam Finn, Professor of Paediatrics, University of Bristol Medical School said:

“This latest twist in the long running saga as to whether doctors acted unprofessionally when they published flawed research which triggered the MMR scare is probably less interesting to the public than the fact that measles infections are back in the UK as well as other parts of Europe. With the disease eliminated from North and South America and falling drastically in Africa and Asia, failure in Europe reliably to immunise children with two doses of MMR means that, like our banking systems and economies, this basic public health programme is in disarray. This is bad news for our children as well as those in the places where we go on holiday, bringing measles with us. MMR vaccine is highly effective and very safe. Measles, mumps and rubella are unpleasant and sometimes disastrous infections which are entirely avoidable through immunisation.”