It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Andrew Wakefield. The scientist (I use the word here with a little scoff) partially set off the vaccine/autism panic with a 1998 study, published in the British medical journal the Lancet , that argued that the MMR vaccine was connected to autism and the bowel disorders that some parent believe accompany it. Last week, following two-and-a-half years of hearings, Britain’s General Medical Council ruled that Wakefield "acted " acted 'dishonestly and irresponsibly ’ " in conducting his research-such as collecting blood samples at his child’s birthday party, with money given to every kid who donated.
And today, the Lancet , which has long been embarrassed by the specter of Wakefield’s MMR research, has officially retracted the study. In 2004, the medical journal investigated the paper’s research methodology-Wakefield is in trouble anew now for his research methods, not the findings per se, which have been picked apart and proven unable to be replicated by others-and said, "We are entirely satisfied that the investigations performed on the children reported in the Lancet paper had been subjected to appropriate and rigorous ethical scrutiny." But in today’s retraction, team Lancet admits that "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."
Ten of the paper’s original 13 authors had already distanced themselves from the work; Wakefield and two colleagues, who were also criticized by the GMC, could have their medical licenses revoked later this year.
But really, all of this comes far too late. Wakefield is a hero among anti-vaccine activists who think that he is a victim of the mainstream media and Big Pharma’s attempts to coax the public into accepting harmful substances. (As a member of said mainstream media, as Slate is a part of the Washington Post Co., I can assure you that I have never attended or even been invited to any evil planning meeting.) His supporters will become even more rabid now. Their outrage-and I understand it, as they think they are on a crusade to save millions from death and suffering, even if I think, know , that they are so utterly wrong and dangerous-has taken them far beyond the point of comprehend the wrongs Wakefield committed. MMR isn’t the vaccine boogeyman these days, and nor is thimerosal; the Jenny McCarthy army focuses instead on "toxins" that it can’t demonstrate are actually, you know, toxic in that form. As each proposed link between vaccination and autism (and food allergies, etc.) gets shot down, the anti-vaccine crew settles on another inoculation component to blame. (For a lengthy and fascinating post dissecting some vaccine toxin myths, visit the Science-Based Medicine blog.) Wakefield’s damage has been done-and it was done long ago. It’s a shame that he’s only now getting penalized.