by Greg Mayer
Following up on a comment by Glen Davidson to my latest dowsing post, in which he noted that the UK’s General Medical Council had ruled against anti-vaccination activist Dr. Andrew Wakefield, finding him callous, unethical and dishonest, I note that The Lancet (registration required) has retracted Wakefield and coauthors’ 1998 paper that set off the autism/vaccination controversy. The editors of The Lancet now accept that not only should the paper not have been published, but that its conclusions are false.
The NY Times also covered the story, in a manner I found refreshing. Too often, perhaps due to some distorted sense of objectivity, news reporting consists of a “he said, she said” style, in which opposing viewpoints are given equal status, regardless of the plausibility or support for the claims made. You’ve all read the kind of story that will have a line like, “Dr. Smith, a paleontologist at the natural history museum, said Triceratops had been extinct for more than 60 million years before the origin of man, while Dr. Jones from the institute said Triceratops had been ridden by men like horses until the recent worldwide flood drowned them all”. The Times reporter, Gardiner Harris, however is familiar with the evidence.
After Dr. Wakefield’s study, vaccination rates plunged in Britain and the number of measles cases soared.
In the United States, anti-vaccine groups have advanced other theories since then to explain why they think vaccines cause autism. For years, they blamed thimerosal, a vaccine preservative containing mercury. Because of concerns over the preservative, vaccine makers in 2001 largely eliminated thimerosal from routinely administered childhood vaccines.
But this change has had no apparent impact on childhood autism rates. Anti-vaccine groups now suggest that a significant number of children have a cellular disorder whose effects are set off by vaccinations.
With each new theory, parents’ groups have called for research to explore possible links between vaccination and autism. Study after study has failed to show any link, and prominent scientific agencies have concluded that scarce research dollars should be spent investigating other possible causes of autism.
(I’ll add parenthetically that I find the notion of “retracting” a paper silly. Once it’s published, it can’t be unpublished. But it is proper for editors and/or authors to later publish to say that a paper’s data or conclusions were flawed, unwarranted, or false.)