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British doctor who kicked off vaccines-autism scare may have lied, newspaper says

February 9, 2009 |  3:39 pm

Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the British physician who jump-started the scare about a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, manipulated and changed data to make his case in the 1998 Lancet paper, according to an investigation by the Sunday Times of London. The purported link has subsequently been refuted by a large number of epidemiological studies.

That Lancet paper said that the families of eight of 12 autistic children attending a routine clinic at Wakefield's hospital claimed that symptoms of autism developed within days after they were given the shot -- or the "jab," as the British call it. Wakefield and his colleagues also claimed to have found the measles virus in the children's intestines and that the virus caused an inflammatory bowel disease linked to autism.

But by studying confidential and public records, investigative reporter Brian Deer, who has been following the MMR controversy since the beginning, found a different story. Hospital and other records indicated that virtually all of the children had begun developing symptoms of autism well before the shot, Deer's report said. Hospital pathologists examining the children for signs of inflammatory bowel disease were unable to find it in most of the cases, Deer discovered, but Wakefield or someone on the team changed the data to make it appear as if the condition was found, Deer reported in the Times. At least one parent of a child in whose intestines the virus was said to have been found took samples to three other labs, which were unable to find the virus, Deer's report said.

Moreover, Deer reported, Wakefield was retained as an expert witness two years earlier by a lawyer planning to sue vaccine manufacturers on behalf of parents who thought MMR caused their children's problems. The parents cited in the Lancet article came to Wakefield's clinic in response to an advertising campaign led by the lawyer's group, called Jabs, and not for routine screening, Deer's report said.

In 2004, 10 of the 13 original authors on the Lancet paper requested that the paper be withdrawn, concluding that "no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism because the data was insufficient." Wakefield has continued to stand by the paper's conclusions.

Wakefield and two other co-authors, Dr. John Walker-Smith and Dr. Simon Murch, are now defending themselves against allegations of professional misconduct brought by England's General Medical Council, which oversees physicians. Those charges are not related to the data in the newspaper, but to the researchers' ethics in using the children.

The Times said it was forwarding all the new data to the GMC for review. Through his lawyers, Wakefield denied the paper's allegations.

In the fallout from Wakefield's original paper, vaccination rates in the country have fallen from 92% to below 80%. As a consequence, 1,348 cases of measles were reported in England and Wales in 2008, compared with only 56 in 1998. Two children died of the disease.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II

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