Last year, The Lancet withdrew a controversial study that had purported to find a link between autism and childhood vaccination because “several findings” of the paper were “incorrect.” The study, by Wakefield, et al., was the only study published in a respected medical journal reporting a potential link and was routinely cited by those claiming childhood vaccinations could cause autism, despite obvious flaws and a wealth of contrary research. Now a new report shows the study was not just wrong, it was “fraudulent” as well.
A report by journalist Brian Deer in the British Journal of Medicine, the first in a series, reveals that the Wakefield study relied upon “bogus data” that was “manufactured” by those who conducted the study. Specifically, Deer found that the study’s authors misrepresented medical and other information about the children in the study, including the timing and appearance of relevant symptoms, creating a false impression of a vaccine-autism link that was not there.
An accompanying editorial in the BMJ pulls no punches.
The Office of Research Integrity in the United States defines fraud as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism. Deer unearthed clear evidence of falsification. He found that not one of the 12 cases reported in the 1998 Lancet paper was free of misrepresentation or undisclosed alteration, and that in no single case could the medical records be fully reconciled with the descriptions, diagnoses, or histories published in the journal.
Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross. Moreover, although the scale of the [General Medical Council's] 217 day hearing precluded additional charges focused directly on the fraud, the panel found him guilty of dishonesty concerning the study’s admissions criteria, its funding by the Legal Aid Board, and his statements about it afterwards. . . .
Meanwhile the damage to public health continues, fuelled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals, and the medical profession. Although vaccination rates in the United Kingdom have recovered slightly from their 80% low in 2003-4, they are still below the 95% level recommended by the World Health Organization to ensure herd immunity. In 2008, for the first time in 14 years, measles was declared endemic in England and Wales. Hundreds of thousands of children in the UK are currently unprotected as a result of the scare, and the battle to restore parents’ trust in the vaccine is ongoing.