Lancet retraction of article linking autism and MMR vaccines 12 years later: A symptom of a bigger problem?

On February 2nd, the British medical journal The Lancet issued an official retraction of the article published 12 years ago that theorized the links between MMR vaccines, gastrointestinal inflammation, and autism, based on results from a study of 12 children. The retraction came after Britain’s General Medical Council ruled that Dr. Andrew Wakefield (the lead author) acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” when he paid children at his son’s birthday party to have blood drawn, and had shown a “callous disregard” by subjecting children to invasive and unnecessary procedures. The Lancet released this statement1 regarding Wakefield’s actions:

“It has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al. are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation. In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were ‘consecutively referred’ and that investigations were ‘approved’ by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record.”

Wakefield’s paper had significant consequences. After the paper was published in 1998, vaccination rates in British children dropped from around 90% to below 70% in some areas, and the number of measles cases in England and Wales skyrocketed from 56 in 1998 to 1,370 in 2008.2 In spite of the body of research by different scientists in different populations – including a study that replicated key parts of Wakefield’s original paper – that concludes there is no link between MMR vaccine and autism1, fears of vaccination danger persist.

The controversy surrounding this article highlights a problem in the system of scientific research and peer review: political and financial influence on research. It is a slippery slope from accepting funding for research to developing a serious conflict of interest related to personal financial gain (or to success as defined by those footing the bill). At the time the original article was published, Dr. Wakefield was encouraging parents to request single vaccines for each disease while he was simultaneously filing for a patent on a single measles vaccine and receiving payments from lawyers planning to sue the manufacturers of the triple MMR vaccine.3

The peer review process is currently not capable of detecting this kind of fraud and cannot be relied on exclusively to provide independent and objective assessments of research like that of Wakefield’s.4,5 Expecting individuals to exercise intelligent skepticism and critical reading skills is not enough; well-respected journals like The Lancet lend considerable credibility to research simply through publishing1, and so must develop scrupulous standards to ensure they are doing their best to provide the public with honest science2.

Comic, artist, and scientist Randall Munroe counsels: “You don’t use science to show you’re right, you use science to become right.” When researchers, institutions, corporations, and governments abandon this principle, the door is opened for doubt, rumor, and distrust. The controversy over Wakefield’s paper clearly indicates this distrust. According to Robert Field, professor of Health Management and Policy at Drexel University, “Unfortunately, the idea that vaccines cause autism is already out there and the damage has already been done…Years of research have clearly disproven a vaccine-autism link, yet many people continue to believe in it. If all of that research hasn’t changed their minds, The Lancet’s retraction is not likely to make much difference.”6

For more information on autism and vaccines, visit:

  1. Park, Madison. “Medical journal retracts study linking autism to vaccine.” CNN, February 2, 2010 1:29 p.m. EST
  2. Opinion. Wall Street Journal, Feb 3rd 2010.
  3. A Welcome Retraction [editorial]. New York Times, February 5, 2010.
  4. Dangers of over-dependence on peer-reviewed publication [editorial]. Nature 1999; 401: 727.
  5. McCook, Alison. “Is Peer Review Broken?”. The Scientist. February 2006.
  6. Childs, Dan and Cox, Lauren. “Lancet Retracts Controversial Autism Paper: Retraction of 1998 Wakefield Study May Not Sway Those Who Fear Vaccine-Autism Link.” ABC News Medical Unit.  Feb. 3, 2010.