A prestigious British medical journal has retracted a controversial 12-year-old article that first linked autism to childhood vaccines and set off global fears about immunization and the causes of the developmental disorder that persist today.
Medical experts and some advocates for people with autism said the move was long overdue, but few expected the retraction to change the minds of vaccine skeptics.
In the years since the Lancet published Dr. Andrew Wakefield's study, numerous review articles have rebutted his claims that the combination measles, mumps and rubella vaccine causes autism. Nevertheless, a vocal minority of parents and their supporters have clung to the notion that the vaccine is unsafe. Recent studies have shown an increase in parents who are opting out of some routine childhood vaccinations, alarming public health experts who fear that diseases once nearly eradicated could return.
"This is welcome. It's overdue; this paper should never have been published," said Dr. Neal Halsey, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who added that it is highly unusual for a prominent medical journal to retract an article. "Dr. Wakefield has stated in the reviews that he was not honest. There is nothing to this hypothesis, that's the bottom line. But unfortunately, it took hold and has been given credibility when it should never have been credible."
A British medical panel said last week that Wakefield's study of a dozen children provided false information, and an investigation is under way that could cause him to lose his medical practice. Several years ago, Wakefield's co-authors conceded that they didn't have enough information to conclude there was a link between the vaccine and autism. And later, reports surfaced that Wakefield was paid by attorneys representing families suing the makers of the vaccine.
"He created incredible pain and suffering among people and gave this false belief that physicians did harm to their children by giving them this vaccine," said Dr. Dan Levy, an Owings Mills pediatrician and past president of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Parents with autistic children face many hardships and are often desperate for clues to the disorder. Wakefield took advantage of their feelings of helplessness, Levy said.
Levy said he's often confronted by parents who are reluctant to vaccinate their children - not just against measles, mumps and rubella, but with other lifesaving childhood vaccines. After he explains the evidence, many parents agree to vaccinate against what Levy calls the most dangerous of childhood illnesses. Among them: polio, whooping cough and diphtheria. But he won't take on patients who refuse all major vaccines. The risk is too great for his other patients, he said.
Just three weeks ago, he said, he had a child come in with a case of mumps. Recently, other patients came down with whooping cough and chickenpox. "I fear we're going to see much more serious diseases," he said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2008 that the rate of measles had reached a 12-year high, with as many as 131 cases in 15 states and the District of Columbia.
"In the U.S., it's about 1 to 3 in 1,000 children will die from measles, depending on the age of the child," said Halsey. "It is a very dangerous disease. I hope the retraction of this article will help gain more confidence among parents that MMR is a very safe vaccine."
But Paul A. Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the author of "Autism's False Profits," which defends the safety of vaccines, said the Lancet's retraction won't be the last word on the debate. For those on the fence about the vaccine's link to autism, the retraction might increase confidence that the vaccine is safe, he said.
But for others who support Wakefield, the retraction won't change any minds.
"There are people who see him as being rejected by the mainstream, who will only see this as another reason to see him as a maverick, someone who stands up against the medical establishment and stands up for what he thinks is right," Offit said.
Indeed, vaccine skeptics have come to Wakefield's defense, including Generation Rescue, a group founded by celebrity Jenny McCarthy.
"Dr. Andrew Wakefield is perhaps this debate's greatest hero," the organization said in a statement last week. "He's a doctor who has held onto the truth, unbowed, through pressure that would break most mortals."
Last week, Wakefield defended his work, telling The Times of London: "The allegations against me and my colleagues are unfounded and unjust."
But Offit, who has been vilified by vaccine opponents, said Wakefield's work has caused nothing but harm.