Journal Retracts Controversial Article that Spurred Anti-vaccine Sentiment

A controversial 1998 research paper in The Lancet, a prominent medical journal, which prompted an abrupt decline in childhood immunizations, was recently retracted after a UK panel determined that the authors who conducted the study acted unethically.

The 1998 research paper described an unexpected pattern of intestinal lesions in 10 of 12 children with developmental disorders. The authors of the study said the lesions occurred, in most cases, after the children received the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, which is typically given by 15 months of age. The paper also cited previous, unrelated studies that attempted to link patterns of intestinal lesions and another intestinal disorder, ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, with sudden behavioral changes, including autism spectrum disorders in young children.

The study did not prove vaccination against MMR caused intestinal disorders. Yet, Anthony Wakefield, a researcher from the Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine in London who led the study, held a press conference following publication of the study, at which he urged parents to shun the combination MMR vaccine in favor of having their children vaccinated with the three vaccines individually, with a year interval between each dose.

This study is widely credited with sparking an anti-vaccination movement that resulted in declines in immunizations, particularly in the UK. In 1997, the year before the study was published, 91% of children in the UK were vaccinated. In 2003, the rate had dropped to 60% in some parts of the country.

Ten of the paper’s 13 authors—not including Wakefield—submitted a partial retraction in 2004 saying they felt research into the intestinal lesions should continue, but stressed that the paper established no causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Following the retraction in February, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a statement reminding parents that vaccines are safe, effective, and that they save lives. “The Lancet’s retraction of Dr. Wakefield’s study is significant,” the CDC noted. “It builds on the overwhelming body of research by the world’s leading scientists that concludes there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.” —Regina McEnery