(LONDON) – An article in the British Medical Journal has declared that a study that linked the MMR vaccine to autism was “an elaborate fraud” that may have led to the preventable disease and death of children.
In an editorial, the BMJ has charged that a 1998 study in Lancet by Andrew Wakefield was not just bad science, but rather a deliberate falsification of data. The journal’s editor-in-chief, Fiona Godlee, has called for an investigation into Wakefield’s other studies to determine if they too should be retracted. Lancet itself retracted the article a year ago, saying it contained elements that were “incorrect.”
Godlee has likened the scare caused by the article to the Piltdown man, the paleontological hoax that convinced people for 40 years that the missing link between man and ape had been found.
In a series of three articles, Godlee, along with deputy BMJ editor Jane Smith and leading pediatrician and associate BMJ editor Harvey Marcovitch, conclude that there is “no doubt” that it was Wakefield who perpetrated the fraud. Meanwhile, they say he has denied any wrongdoing.
“Instead, although now disgraced and stripped of his clinical and academic credentials, he continues to push his views. Meanwhile the damage to public health continues,” they said.
Medical experts have declared outrage over the article, questioning how many parents may have kept their children from vaccines based on Wakefield’s study.
“We can only wonder how many children may have died or suffered debilitating illnesses because of this slander against a powerful medical tool that could have saved them, and how many still will before the autism scare is finally put to rest,” said Robert Field, professor of Law at Drexel University.
Some also question the study’s effect on the public’s trust in science.
“Andrew Wakefield has done inestimable damage to the public health both in the U.S. and Europe,” said Bill Schaffner, chairman of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt. “Bad enough when his work was thought to be a combination of inept science and misguided hucksterism – now there are allegations of premeditated fraud!”
And if those allegations are correct, could Wakefield be charged criminally or civilly in England or the U.S.? According to British and American legal experts, prosecutors would have to prove that Wakefield deliberately and knowingly published false information for personal gain. Furthermore, they would have to prove the study was a "substantial factor" in parents' decision to forego vaccination and that Wakefield could have "reasonably foreseen" kids getting sick because of his fraudulent study.
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