Sunday, February 08, 2009

Vaccines and autism - a fraud from day one?

My distress at the Autism Society of America's vaccine obsession doesn't mean that it was necessarily always a bad idea to look for a link between immunization and autism. A legitimate study showing a correlation would deserve investigation, and when the correlation was disproved it would then be appropriate to move on (years ago, in this case).

Happens all the time. That's science.

But what if there never was a correlation to begin with? That would be one of the most harmful cases of scientific fraud in the past fifty years (emphases mine) ...
Aetiology: Vaccines and autism--can we stick a fork in it now, please?

Last fall, I wrote about a new research paper which tried to replicate some of Andrew Wakefield's original results, which not only claimed a correlation between MMR vaccination and autism, but also the presence of measles virus in intestinal tissue. Wakefield had suggested that an inappropriate response to the presence of measles virus in this tissue may trigger conditions such as bowel disease and autism. The more recent study was unable to replicate any of Wakefield's findings--not surprising, since so many papers in the last decade have found no connection between vaccination and autism.

There are plenty of reasons why the study may not have been replicated. The design of the new study was a bit different from Wakefield's (case-control versus a case series); it had larger numbers; investigators were blinded to the status of the patients and so less likely to bring in bias. However, a recent investigation by the Sunday Times (London) has another reason why the results of the two papers differ: Wakefield made up his data. More after the jump...

From the Times Online:

Confidential medical documents and interviews with witnesses have established that Andrew Wakefield manipulated patients' data, which triggered fears that the MMR triple vaccine to protect against measles, mumps and rubella was linked to the condition.

The research was published in February 1998 in an article in The Lancet medical journal. It claimed that the families of eight out of 12 children attending a routine clinic at the hospital had blamed MMR for their autism, and said that problems came on within days of the jab. The team also claimed to have discovered a new inflammatory bowel disease underlying the children's conditions.

However, our investigation, confirmed by evidence presented to the General Medical Council (GMC), reveals that: In most of the 12 cases, the children's ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated. Hospital pathologists, looking for inflammatory bowel disease, reported in the majority of cases that the gut was normal. This was then reviewed and the Lancet paper showed them as abnormal.

This is truly incredible. Even being familiar with Wakefield's statements over the past decade about his research, and his complete denial about studies that have contradicted his own findings, it's still pretty shocking that he completely made up data, and then pushed it for ten years as children around the world became ill and even died in light of his research. It's even more disgusting in light of the fact that I doubt this new information will change many minds when it comes to vaccination--the meme has already spread too far to let a little thing like atrocious scientific misconduct rein it in now.

Wakefield's original Lancet coauthors retracted their interpretation of the data in 2004. The wikipedia article on Wakefield (reads like it's in an edit war) says his research misconduct trial was to commence a year ago, but it seems like this Feb release from the Times of London is the most definitive response thus far.

If the charges are corect, then was Wakefield delusional himself, or is he a sociopath? I'm hoping the former, it's not all that rare in science, but given his subsequent career I fear the latter.

Update 2/9/09: Excellent summary of reactions to the Times article. I scanned some of the skeptics responses, and this is also a list of interesting blogs to consider reading.


Liz Ditz said...

I've done another round-up post -- who is saying what about the Deer articles on Wakefield in the London Times. I've included this post.

11 years on, Wakefield Manufactured Data showing MMR-Autism Link?

Anonymous said...

It turns out journalist Brian Deer made it up:-
"Sunday Times Journalist Made Up Wakefield MMR Data Fixing Allegation":

And he was helping the US Justice Dept sink 4500 US kids claims for vaccine damage compensation - what kind of normal journalist does that? Ans: none.
"US Federal Court, US Justice Dept & The Sunday Times - More Questions Than Answers"

John Gordon said...

I the above links (anonymous). The first works but it's too a very unreliable source and it doesn't provide evidence that Deer "made it up".

The second statement doesn't make sense to me and the link doesn't work.