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Research That Sparked Anti-vaccination Campaign Called an "Elaborate Fraud"

An article published this month by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) concluded that a controversial 1998 study that suggested a possible link between gastrointestinal disease and the onset of behavioral disorders, including autism, in children following receipt of the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine was an “elaborate fraud.” British investigative journalist Brian Deer, who wrote the BMJ article, said the authors of the study, originally published in The Lancet, misrepresented the medical histories of most of the 12 children who participated in the study. He also said that Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who led the study, profited from its findings.

The BMJ article is just the latest evidence discrediting the study that is widely acknowledged as one of the main drivers of an anti-vaccination movement in the UK and abroad. “Study after study after study show that there was no connection [between the MMR vaccine and autism],” says Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Last year The Lancet retracted the 1998 study after a medical regulatory panel in the UK determined the authors had acted unethically (see VAX March 2010 Global News). Wakefield was later stripped of his medical license in the UK. In response to the BMJ article, Wakefield released a statement saying that the health problems identified in the children “were not a hoax and that there was no fraud whatsoever.” He also said he did not seek to profit from the findings.

Although public health organizations and pediatricians tried to reassure the public that the MMR vaccine is safe for children, immunization rates in the UK plummeted after The Lancet study. In 1997, the year before The Lancet study was published, 91% of children in the UK were vaccinated. In 2003, the rate had dropped significantly in some parts of the country. “There were certain sections of London where fewer than 50% of the population were immunized,” says Offit.

The decline in vaccination rates extends well beyond the UK. Last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported at a pediatrics conference in Vancouver that the percentage of American parents who refused or delayed vaccination doses had increased from 22% in 2003 to 39% in 2008. Fears about adverse events from vaccines also led to a 10% drop in vaccination rates in the Ukraine between May 2008 and March 2009, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

And when vaccination rates lapse, it can have dire, even deadly consequences. “We are now seeing outbreaks of infectious diseases that we hadn’t seen before, not at this level,” says Offit, whose new book, “Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All,” details the history of the modern anti-vaccine movement and its consequences.

Offit notes, for instance, that in 2010, California experienced the worst outbreak of pertussis (whooping cough) since 1947. California health authorities have reported nearly 9,000 confirmed, probable, or suspected cases since Jan. 1, 2010, and 10 deaths.

“When you choose for your child not to get a vaccine, it’s not a choice that you’re making for yourself alone,” adds Offit. “You’re making that choice for other people who are near you who may be too young to be vaccinated, or who are getting chemotherapy for their cancer, or are getting immune-suppressive therapy for their transplants. They depend upon those around them to be vaccinated, and if they are not, then these are the people who are going to be the most likely to suffer and be hospitalized and die from diseases.” —Regina McEnery