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Landmark Research on Vaccine Link to Autism a Hoax, Investigation Finds

Longtime worries about links between childhood vaccines and autism were based on a hoax perpetrated by a disgraced English doctor, according to a new investigation.

A series of detailed reports from the medical journal BMJ ties the scare to a ground-breaking 1998 article, and concludes that it suffered from serious ethical and medical lapses.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield published his paper tying autism to the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella in 1998, in the prestigious British journal The Lancet. His paper sparked oceans of controversy, with legions of devastated parents believing that he had discovered the reason for their children’s disorder. Many have opted to avoid vaccines, which some health officials say is the cause of outbreaks of diseases that were previously rare.

But during the almost 13 years since the piece was published, the medical establishment has remained steadfast in its opposition to Wakefield’s conclusions (although, in rare instances, vaccines have been found to cause brain-damage known as “encephalopathy” that can produce autism-like symptoms). This opposition began to culminate last year, when The Lancet reexamined Wakefield’s research and published a retraction of the original piece. Then, in May, the General Medical Council stripped Wakefield of his license to practice medicine in the UK.

And now, the BMJ reporting builds the case against Wakefield and his research even further.

As veteran science journalist Brian Deer reports, Wakefield had identified the supposed connection between vaccines and autism before he even began to conduct his research, but after he was hired to participate in legal case against a vaccine manufacturer.

He built his case for the alleged link between vaccines and regressive autism, in which a child first develops normally but suddenly begins to decline, around 12 children who were allegedly stricken with the disease. Yet only one of the children in the study actually had that disorder, and three of the them didn’t suffer from autism at all.

The reports have stirred up strong reactions from the medical community.

“It was sad enough that the data in this paper was published and influenced scientists and governments and families to make decisions that just weren’t right,” Keith A. Young, a researcher at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, told Bloomberg Business Week. “But now to find out that the data was actually falsified makes it even worse. This really, really is one of the worst scenarios that’s ever happened with scientific misconduct.”

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