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MMR Vaccine, Scientific Fraud, and Autism

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A great deal of the furor over the relationship between autism and the MMR vaccine (which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella, or "German" measles) began with a paper published in the Lancet (vol 351, pages 637-641) in 1998. The paper, whise senior authors were Andrew Wakefield and John Walker-Smith (both British physicians), described a series of 12 children with chronic digestive problems and regression of development of the kind seen in autism, and claimed that these children's developmental problems occurred after they received the MMR vaccine.

The paper was retracted by the Lancet (vol 375, page 445) in February, 2010. It was retracted after the United Kingdom General Medical Council (the body that licenses physicians in Great Britain) revoked Dr. Wakefield's and Dr. Walker-Smith's licenses to practice medicine. The GMC's investigation originally focused on whether the original study was reviewed for patient safety, as required by law and by almost every reputable scientific journal, and whether Dr. Wakefield has been paid to find a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The GMC in fact found that the study was not properly reviewed, and that Dr. Wakefield had been paid to find the results that he and his coauthors eventually published. Among their other findings was that Dr. Wakefield, far from obtain informed consent for testing, actually obtained blood samples for his study from children attending his own son's birthday party without explaining to the children or their parents why the blood was being drawn or what the samples would be used for.

As it turned out, the situation was even worse. Brian Deer, a British journalist asked by the BMJ (British Medical Journal) to investigate the paper and its findings further, reviewed the records of the patients cited in the Wakefield paper and compared them to the paper itself. Mr. Deer found that every oneof the patient descriptions in the paper had been misrepresented, falsified, or both.

In other words, it appears that the argument that MMR causes autism -- which has resulted in many unnecessary cases of measles, some fatal, with no change in the number of children who develop autism -- was based on a pack of lies.

As I have said many times -- including elsewhere in the Office -- I recommend vaccines when and if I believe, based on available scientific evidence, that the risk of harm caused by the vaccine is much less than the risk of harm from the disease itself. Many of the diseases we vaccinate against, including diphtheria, HiB, measles, meningococcus, pneumococcus, polio, tetanus, varicella chickenpox, and whooping cough -- and the flu -- can kill or cripple children and adults -- and killed and crippled people regularly before we had the vaccines -- and are killing and crippling children and adults NOW because they have not received the vaccines. I'll stop recommending a vaccine if and only if I am shown strong, valid scientific evidence that the risk of injury from the vaccine is more than the risk of injury from the disease. And not before then.

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PLEASE NOTE: As with all of this Web site, I try to give general answers to common questions my patients and their parents ask me in my (real) office. If you have specific questions about your child you must ask your child's regular doctor. No doctor can give completely accurate advice about a particular child without knowing and examining that child. I will be happy to try and answer general questions about children's health, but unless your child is a regular patient of mine I cannot give you specific advice.

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Copyright © 2011 Vinay N. Reddy, M.D. All rights reserved.
Written 02/05/11; last revised 02/05/11 counter