It began as the scientific paper that served as a central pillar for the idea that vaccination could increase children's risk of developing autism. Now, with a formal retraction from the Lancet, the medical journal which in 1998 published this piece of research by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, most researchers will view the study as if it had never been published in the first place.
Ten of the 13 authors of the original paper, all of whom were researchers at the Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine in London, partially retracted the paper in 2004. However, the first author, Andrew Wakefield, didn't. Dr. Wakefield, has not been returning phone calls to comment.
Wakefield's hypothesis was that by combining vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella into a single shot, known as MMR, the vaccine weakened the immune system and damaged the gut. He said that this, in turn, led to the development of autism.
The General Medical Council concluded that Wakefield participated in "dishonesty and misleading conduct" while he conducted the research. Specifically, it found Wakefield responsible for an ethics breach because he wrote that the children involved in the case report were referred to his clinic for stomach problems, when he knew nearly half of the children were actually part of a lawsuit looking into the effects of an MMR vaccine. Some children didn't have stomach issues at all.
Wakefield also failed to disclose he was paid in conjunction with the lawsuit, or that he had a patent related to a new MMR vaccine in development when he submitted the case report for publication.
Moreover, according to one of the findings against the doctor, Wakefield took blood samples from children at his own child's birthday party and paid them each five British pounds for their trouble.
In a statement explaining its retraction of Wakefield's paper, the Lancet said: "Following the judgment of the U.K. General Medical Council's Fitness to Practice Panel on Jan. 28, 2010, it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield and others are incorrect ... 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."
Having mentioned this, I feel it is of importance to note that unfortunately, the stigmatism that people have towards vaccines, and the idea that vaccines cause autism is already out there and the damage has already been done. Years of research have clearly disproven a vaccine-autism link, yet many people continue to believe in it. If all of that research hasn't changed their minds, the Lancet's retraction is not likely to make much difference.