Dr. Andrew Wakefield has responded in an e-mail message to Tuesday's article citing the medical journal Lancet's retraction of his 1998 article purporting to link autism to the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. The article stated that Wakefield now practices in Austin, Texas. In fact, he does not practice medicine, but performs research aimed at the development of new treatments for autism. His statement:
"The allegations against me and my colleagues are both unfounded and unjust and I invite anyone to examine the contents of these proceedings and come to their own conclusion.
"In fact, the Lancet paper does not claim to confirm a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Research into that possible connection is still ongoing."
He is correct -- sort of. The paper does not claim to confirm the link, which has subsequently been refuted by innumerable studies showing that the incidence of the autism epidemic is unrelated to vaccination. But many who read the paper drew the clear inference that the vaccine is the cause. Since the paper's publication, millions of dollars of research funds that could have been spent looking for the causes of the disorder have instead been diverted to investigating the potential link to vaccines. More important, a large number of parents, particularly in England but also in the United States, refused to have their children vaccinated with MMR, leading to outbreaks of measles with serious consequences.
But perhaps for fellow researchers the more relevant question today is whether results from Wakefield's current and ongoing studies can be trusted. Reseachers build upon each other's findings, often trusting that scientific standards have been applied and that the results are legitimate.
The General Medical Council, Britain's regulator of such affairs, concluded that in his research for the Lancet paper Wakefield acted with "callous disregard" for patients by conducting invasive tests on children that were not in their best medical interests. He also failed to obtain approval from his ethics committee for his studies and obtained blood samples for his research by offering 5 pounds to children at a birthday party, the council said. His paper said that the results were obtained with 12 consecutive patients, when that was not the case, according to the council. He also did not disclose that his studies were funded by lawyers who were attempting to sue the vaccine makers in court, nor that he was developing a vaccine that would have been very profitable if the MMR vaccine was discarded, the council said. The council also said it is considering withdrawing Wakefield's license to practice medicine.
Queried about researchers' concerns, Wakefield responded that: "I commonly conduct research in conjunction with collaborators from universities and private institutions all over the world. These teams of researchers are highly regarded in their fields."
Researchers have also wondered why it took Lancet so long to retract the paper. A letter to The Times from Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical director of the pro-industry American Council on Science and Health, summarizes many of the comments The Times has received:
"The retraction by The Lancet's editor-in-chief Richard Horton comes far too late. Even now, Horton fails to accept responsibility for the human toll he engendered by publishing the Wakefield 'study' in 1998. The study -- even without the then-unknown ethical failings -- was a terribly unscientific piece of garbage, based on 12 children and using a 'novel' theory of causation and flimsy 'evidence'.... Even when 10 of the original 13 authors withdrew their names, Horton declined to either withdraw the article or accept his own guilt for the ravages of preventable childhood diseases following the havoc he allowed to occur."
Rae Sonnenmeier, clinical associate professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of New Hampshire, concurs, noting that Horton called the paper "fatally flawed" in 2004, while refusing to retract it. The decision has "placed children at unnecessary risk for contracting measles, rubella and mumps, which are serious diseases that can be prevented by immunization," she said.
Wakefield is executive director of Thoughtful House for Children, which submitted the e-mailed statement on his behalf.
-- Thomas H. Maugh II