British journal finds autism-vaccine link study a deliberate fraud

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 06, 2011 1 min read
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In what may finally convince worried parents to bring their children in for immunizations, the British Medical Journal reported in its most recent journal that a famous British case study linking the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to autism was completely made up, and the researchers involved profited from the massive vaccine scare that is still bubbling away.

In a fascinating series of articles written after years of reporting, journalist Brian Deer, writing for the BMJ, picks apart exactly how Andrew Wakefield and a dozen other researchers from the Royal Free Hospital and Medical School in London gamed patient records to make it seem that childhood immunizations had led to a new form of autism in eight out of 12 children tested. The study itself was published in 1998 in the well-respected journal The Lancet and only retracted in 2010.

Considering critics cited problems with the methodology as soon as the paper was published, why has it taken so long for the fraud to come to light? And why has this meme gotten so rooted in the psyche of some parents? I think this speaks to the deep need, not just for more nuanced research into the causes of developmental disabilities, but more generally into the way researchers and the media communicate research findings to the public. Parents want answers to why their child is having problems—and more to the point how to fix them—and if the actual research findings are complex, hard to understand and unusable, its that much easier to latch onto a finding that seems simple, even if it’s made up out of whole cloth.

It will be interesting to see whether this report will be a final nail in the coffin of the “vaccines cause autism” scare, or just another finding that doesn’t translate into practice.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.