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Journal’s ‘Belated’ Autism Retraction Hurts Science

March 17 2010 | by

While I can only hope that the recent retraction of a 1998 study that claimed the vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) could increase children’s risk of developing autism will close the door on this staunchly held belief, I’m afraid the myth still will prevail.

In a statement explaining its retraction, The Lancet, a British medical journal, which published the study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, said, “it has become clear that several elements are incorrect … in particular, the claims in the original paper that children were ‘consecutively referred’ and that investigations were ‘approved’ by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false.”

To parse that out for you, the main issue with the Wakefield study was a misleading breach of ethics. Specifically, Wakefield wrote that the 12 children in his case report were referred to his clinic with stomach problems; actually, the children were part of a lawsuit exploring the effects of vaccines on autism. Not only did Wakefield fail to disclose he was paid in union with the lawsuit, he didn’t let on that he had a patent related to the same vaccine in development when he submitted his report.

This ethical breach is deeply disheartening to the scientific community at large — the Lancet is a prestigious journal. But I fear that those who have long believed autism is caused by vaccines will simply dismiss the retraction as censorship and conspiracy, contributing to the outbreak of diseases that should be vaccinated against. Jenny McCarthy, the theory’s celebrity endorser, is already on the talk-show circuit defending the discredited vaccine study. What’s now firmly myth is still being exalted as reality by those clinging to an origin for autism (there is currently no definitive answer to what causes autism). All the while, vaccination rates, while generally high, have shown dips partly because these parents are skipping shots for their children.

Much like the recent controversy over global warming data, the Lancet’s laughably belated retraction comes at the expense of the public’s trust in science’s standards. When political issues hijack research, personal agenda creates myopic misperception and costs the autism community the indignity and serious danger of belief in bunk science.

As Mark Sawyer, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Radey Children’s Hospital in San Diego told the Los Angeles Times, “One person’s research set us back a decade, and we’re just now recovering from that.”

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