In 1998, a British surgeon named Andrew Wakefield published a paper claiming that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine might cause autism. To support his case, Dr. Wakefield reported the stories of eight children who had developed symptoms of autism within one month of receiving MMR.
As several different investigations—summed up in a British Medical Journal (BMJ) editorial this month—have shown, not a single aspect of Dr. Wakefield’s notion of how MMR causes autism has proven correct. And 14 studies have been conducted since 1998 on several continents and involving thousands of children—and none of these studies found any link whatsoever between the vaccine and autism.
In the meantime, how was the initial report received? To put it simply, many nervous parents—many of whom could also have been aware of at least anecdotal evidence of a rise in autism— didn’t have their children vaccinated, or postponed vaccinations until after their children were already exposed to, and exposing their peers to, very serious health risks. And the results are disastrous to the children and the rest of the population. The State of California is experiencing the largest whooping cough epidemic in over half a century. After thousands of parents in the United Kingdom and Ireland chose not to vaccinate their children against MMR, hundreds of children were hospitalized and four killed by measles. In 2008, for the first time in 14 years, measles was declared endemic in England and Wales.
How did one paper have such a drastic effect? This Wall Street Journal article explores the situation—the MMR/autism link is an extraordinary claim backed by scant evidence— and several more systemic failures, including the push for publication of an article after it had been rejected by multiple journals; repeated media references to the article even though it involved only eight children; and some questionable behavior on Dr. Wakefield’s part in receiving received tens of thousands of pounds from a personal-injury lawyer in the midst of suing pharmaceutical companies over MMR. Read more…