The Lancet retracts study linking autism to vaccine

LONDON — The Lancet medical journal formally retracted a paper that caused a 12-year international battle over links between the three-in-one childhood measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism.

The paper, published in 1998 and written by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, suggested the combined MMR shot might be linked to autism and bowel disease.

His assertion, since widely discredited, caused one of the biggest medical rows in a generation and led to a steep drop in the number of vaccinations in the United States, Britain and other parts of Europe, prompting a rise in cases of measles.

A disciplinary panel of Britain's General Medical Council ruled last week that Wakefield had presented his research in an "irresponsible and dishonest" way and shown a "callous disregard" for the suffering of the children he studied, Reuters reported.

It also ruled he had brought the medical profession "into disrepute."

The Lancet said that following the General Medical Council’s ruling, it was now clear that certain parts of Wakefield's paper were wrong.

It highlighted claims in the original paper that children investigated for the study "consecutively referred" and that investigations were "approved" by the local ethics committee, and said these had now been "proven to be false."

"Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record," it said in a statement.

The Lancet had already issued a partial retraction, BBC News reported.

In 2004, editors argued they had been right to publish Wakefield’s paper because the journal was there to "raise new ideas."

But they accepted that in hindsight they may not have been, after accusations of a conflict of interest — Wakefield was in the pay of lawyers who were acting for parents who believed their children had been harmed by MMR.

But this move goes further by accepting the research was fundamentally flawed because of a lack of ethical approval and the way the children's illnesses were presented.

"It has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield ... are incorrect," the internationally renowned scientific journal said in a statement Feb. 2.

The British regulator only looked at how he acted during the research, not whether the findings were right or wrong — although they have been widely discredited by medical experts across the world in the years since publication.

A rise in parents' refusal to have their children vaccinated because of fears of links to autism has caused a rise in measles cases in the United States and parts of Europe in recent years.

Data released last February for England and Wales showed a rise in measles cases of more than 70 percent in 2008 from the previous year, mostly because of unvaccinated children.

Vaccination rates are now recovering and Wakefield's research has been discredited worldwide.

Wakefield, who now lives and works in the United States, has always defended his work and accused those who argued against him of making "unfounded and unjust" allegations.