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Lancet Retracts Study Linking Autism to Measles Vaccine

Leading medical journal The Lancet on Tuesday issued a full retraction of a controversial and immensely influential 1998 paper that had linked autism to the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination (often referred to as the "MMR" vaccine).

The retraction came after a ruling made the previous week by the General Medical Council (GMC) found Dr. Andrew Wakefield - the lead researcher on the 1998 paper - and two fellow colleagues to have broken various research rules and standards while developing the paper. The GMC is the regulatory body responsible for licensing doctors and supervising medical ethics in the United Kingdom (UK).

More than 30 charges were found proven against Wakefield, including counts of mistreating developmentally challenged children by causing "high-risk," invasive research - such as spinal taps and brain scans - to be carried out without ethical approval and against their best health interests. Another example mentioned by the GMC of Wakefield's "callous disregard" for the children he was studying was the time he went around to children guests at his son's fifth birthday party and offered them £5 for blood samples. The GMC is still debating whether or not to strike Wakefield from the medical register.

The GMC also affirmed that Dr. Wakefield's research had been at least partially funded by lawyers and other representatives acting on behalf of parents who believed that their children had been medically harmed by the MMR vaccine. In 2004, Brian Deer of The Sunday Times (UK) led an investigation that exposed a deal made by Wakefield with a lawyer named Richard Barr. Barr, in the late 1990's, was preparing a civil suit against the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. Deer also discovered that Wakefield had patented a single measles vaccine - which seemed to suggest that Wakefield was more interested in heading a successful business coup against the makers of MMR vaccine than in legitimate (and ethical) medical discovery.

The Lancet stated that Wakefield's unethical practices compromised the results of his studies beyond repair. In their official statement, the editors of The Lancet said: "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."

Following the initial publication of the paper in 1998, sales of the MMR vaccine plummeted, resulting in a rise in the measles throughout Europe and North America. The paper also instigated what has become an ongoing debate regarding the possible dangers of many types of vaccines - including the more recent concern of possible negative consequences of H1N1 and seasonal influenze vaccines.

Since 1998, a number of other studies have disproved Wakefield's findings, and it is generally the consensus of the medical community that the MMR vaccine is safe. In fact, in 2004, The Lancet issued a partial retraction.

Whether or not this latest retraction will reignite trust in the MMR vaccine is yet to be seen; according to Deer, writing for The Times (UK) Online, Wakefield had vocal support at the GMC hearing from the "hard core of the families of children with autism." The subject remains divisive and heatedly debated.

To learn more about autism and autism spectrum disorders, visit Healthline's autism learning center.

Written By: Elijah Wolfson
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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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