The Wakefield Paper Retraction: a violation of medical ethics is always bad news

It’s an unusual situation. In fact, during my entire medical career, including my years as a medical student and resident, I can not recall a single other moment that compares to what occurred yesterday. Yesterday was a first.

You have to understand, respected medical journals commonly print errors and omissions from printed studies to set the record straight. But, retract a published scientific paper? Unheard of…unless something unethical was discovered or faulty science revealed, which is what were given as the reasons yesterday when Lancet retracted Wakefield’s 1998 paper, the same paper that triggered the autism-MMR link.

Two decades of an antivaccine movement were essentially built on this paper, creating a decrease in MMR vaccination and an increase in measles outbreaks, as you can see if you click here. Despite countless other scientific studies, reputable ones, debuncking it’s findings, it’s been challenging to convince parents as to the lack of link between autism and the MMR vaccine.

The Lancet editors wrote: “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.”

The Lancet editors based their decision on a hearing conducted by the General Medical Council of the UK. We learn some of the details from the press.

According to the Guardian, the General Medical Council of the UK noted that Wakefield

” ‘failed in his duties as a responsible consultant” and showed a “callous disregard’ for the suffering of children involved in his research….” The Guardian goes on to note that

“Wakefield also acted dishonestly and was misleading and irresponsible in the way he described research that was later published in the Lancet medical journal…. He had gone against the interests of children in his care, and his conduct brought the medical profession “into disrepute” after he took blood samples from youngsters at his son’s birthday party in return for payments of £5.”

So much for thoroughly conducted research. Those children were not referred to Dr. Wakefield but playing with his child at a birthday party. He’d be hard pressed to convince any one of us that any of those kids had autism or a GI issue. And, money was exchanged for the sampling of the blood which raises all sorts of other questions about what the parents of those kids may have been told at the tie.

Discussions are ongoing as to whether Wakefield should now lose his medical license, with good reason given the few facts we do know. If nothing else, one does not conduct medical research at a birthday party.

Wakefield took advantage of a vulnerable group of parents. I hope as the dust settles they begin to see that, become incredibly angry and start to look at the true facts. Perhaps then, they’ll see there really are people working hard in the autism world to help their kids – and those people don’t have to conduct research at birthday parties.