Sunday, 8 February 2009

MMR: Wakefield hearing uncovers research falsification

Dr Andrew Wakefield is nearing the end of his GMC hearing on charges of conducting research unethically. This relates to the Lancet paper that sparked the media "controversy" over the MMR vaccine in 1998, apparently linking it to bowel disease and Autism. We all know what happened next... ill informed journalists and columnists demanding the withdrawal of the vaccine, the Blairs refusing to confirm or deny whether Leo had been vaccinated, a massive drop in immunisation, and now finally a return to Measles being endemic in the UK.

A lot has been written about who was to blame for this. Whilst it may have been tempting to pin it all on Wakefield I think it's fair to say the press should take a massive share of the blame.

What is only properly coming to light now however is how flawed Wakefield's research was. An article in today's Sunday Times by Brian Deer look at some of the evidence that has been uncovered through the GMC hearing.

We had been told that the Lancet paper showed evidence of 12 previously normal children contracting from bowel disease and behavioural problems indicative of Autism only a short time after receiving MMR. Nobody has ever been able to replicate these findings, and no other evidence linking MMR to Autism has ever been found. Still, Wakefield stood by his research.

The previously unreleased papers show a pattern of falsification, misreporting and selective reporting of the evidence that led to Wakefield's conclusion. These include:

- children showing indications of behavioural problems before the MMR jab
- children showing similar problems several months following MMR, when Wakefield had claimed it was two weeks later
- pathology records showing that Wakefield's bowel disease diagnoses were inaccurate and misleading

Sometimes people get things wrong, which is why scientists regularly review and reproduce each others work. Could Wakefield simply have been mistaken, made errors, and just not been very good at his job? Or is these something else that can account for the poor quality of his research and conclusions?

What has also been uncovered through this hearing is that before his research Wakefield will have had a vested interest in the outcome. Wakefield had already been working with a lawyer, representing the anti-vaccine lobby group JABS in order to seek compensation for families who claimed MMR had damaged their child.

Wakefield had sought funding from the Legal Aid Board, claiming to have found a "new syndrome" (remember, this is before the research). This funding was to "seek evidence which will be acceptable in a court of law" to establish a link between MMR and Autism. So far Wakefield has earned over £430,000 from families seeking compensation.

The last word should perhaps go to Wakefield, who, at the press conference announcing the Lancet paper (itself an unusual event) said:

“It’s a moral issue for me. I can’t support the continued use of these three vaccines, given in combination, until this issue has been resolved.”

Moral. Indeed.


  1. I didn't know AW was being paid by families seeking compensation - in what capacity did he charge them? Did he declare "no competing interests" at the time of publication? It's a staggering breakdown of the whole system, really.

    Here via badscience.

  2. I've done another round-up post -- who is saying what about the Deer articles on Wakefield in the London Times. I've included this post.

    11 years on, Wakefield Manufactured Data showing MMR-Autism Link?

  3. Hi Liz. Thanks for including the post in your round up. It seems to have been picked up pretty quickly by a lot of bloggers!