Will the False Vaccine-Autism Link Finally Be Broken?

Finally, after years of scrutiny from the scientific community, major British medical journal The Lancet last week formally retracted a flawed study linking vaccines to autism. Specifically, disgraced British surgeon and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield linked the triple jab of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism and bowel disease.But last week, Britain's General Medical Council ruled that Wakefield had shown a ''callous disregard'' for the children used in his study and said he acted unethically, dishonestly and irresponsibly. For one, Wakefield never disclosed conflicts of interest: He was allegedly in the pocket of trial lawyers interested in suing vaccine manufacturers, and himself was developing a competing vaccine. Moreover, the lab he submitted his samples to used flawed, sloppy techniques and was contaminated, resulting in false positives on the key genetic tests upon which his conclusions were based. Dr. Wakefield says the council's claims were "unfounded and unjust."

Perhaps the worst of it is that for his study, Wakefield took blood samples from children at his son's birthday party, without proper ethics panel approval. He paid them 5 pounds each ($8) for their contributions, and later joked about the incident. The study had a sample size of 12 children; some of them were the children of the parents suing vaccine manufacturers.

The study appeared in 1998 in The Lancet. Since then, 10 of Wakefield's 12 co-authors have renounced the study's conclusions, and The Lancet, which partially retracted it in 2004, has said it should never have published the report.

The results of Wakefield's study couldn't be replicated, and later studies have found no evidence that vaccines are connected to autism. But the damage was done. In Britain, vaccination rates have dropped, leading to a resurgence of measles and outbreaks of the disease every year. In the U.S., the anti-vaccine movement found a flag to wave to prove its unfounded claims.

Despite Lack of Evidence, Anti-Vaccine Activists Will Persist

While many in the scientific community breathed a sigh of relief when the retraction was issued, hoping it would finally lay the issue to rest, some were still unsatisfied, noting that the damage is bound to persist. Indeed, the reaction to the retraction by the anti-vaccine movement has been to claim censorship.

As Dr. Peter Lipson of The Science Business blog in Forbes writes, vaccines "have done more for public health than anything besides clean water and good sewers." Yet, they "have been under attack from activists such as Jenny McCarthy (with her degree from Google U), and by some medical and scientific professionals" with questionable motives.

And perhaps the fear over vaccines can be clearly seen in the recent swine flu outbreak. Only one in five adults actually got vaccinated a new government-funded flu poll found. And among the adults who did not get the vaccine and parents who did not immunize their kids, 35% and 56%, respectively, were concerned about vaccine safety.

The vaccine market, historically associated with low profit margins and slow growth rates, is actually quite small compared to the global pharmaceutical market, with revenues of $4.5 billion in 2007. But analysts predict the vaccine market will more than double from 2007 and 2014. And, as the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 showed, an outbreak can certainly boost vaccine sales. Meanwhile, vaccines to treat other diseases such as cancer, HIV and even smoking are being developed. These could be more profitable to drugmakers.

No doubt, the pharmaceutical industry and its government regulators have lost much of the public's trust -- and often they've given the public good reason to mistrust them. But that's no reason to ignore the facts. Perhaps this comprehensive scientific debunking of the Wakefield study will help some of the honestly misguided people in the anti-vaccine movement jettison their irrational fears, and move past the need to blame someone, anyone -- regardless of fault -- for autism.
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