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The Lancet’s Retraction: Autism and Vaccines

Renee Despres
Friday, November 11, 2011 - 14:47

I breathe a sigh of relief when I read headlines like the one at the top of The Lancet’s home page this week: “Retraction—Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.” In (somewhat) plain English, that means the editors of The Lancet, a leading medical journal, have retracted an article published in 1998 that purported to establish a causal link between vaccines – specifically the mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) vaccine – autism, and gastrointestinal disorders. After the study was published, parents began to abandon the vaccine in droves — leading to outbreaks of measles in Great Britain and the United States and fueling the general anti-vaccine fire.

Although The Lancet had previously said it shouldn’t have published the research, it wasn’t until the British Medical Council gave a stinging slap to the paper’s lead author — Andrew Wakefield — that the Lancet editors finally retracted the paper in its entirety. Last week, the Council found that Dr. Wakefield had acted unethically, showing a “callous disregard” for the children in his study. For the study, Dr. Wakefield took blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party. Each child was paid 5 pounds sterling ($8) for their contributions, and Wakefield was said to joke about the incident afterward.

The story of the Lancet’s retraction hit the airwaves yesterday with a small explosion But if you read beyond the first few paragraphs in most of the media’s coverage, you’ll find that the reporters filing the story found it necessary to quote from the “other side.” Enmeshed in all those stories are quotes from parents and anti-vaccine activists who remain convinced that the connection between autism and vaccines is irrefutable.

I know, it’s “balanced” journalism. But where’s the balance? There really is no debate about autism and vaccines. Study after study, including studies of studies, and reviews of those studies of studies, have failed to establish any causal link. So why did reporters from CNN feel like they needed to interview people like Rebecca Estepp, a spokeswoman for Talk About Curing Autism?

Estepp said her son has autism and bowel problems. She said she remains convinced that he had a vaccine reaction and that Wakefield’s research helped doctors identify how to help her son.

“I guess the GMC can say whatever they want to say for the rest of their existence, but I know that my son got better because of Dr. Wakefield,” she said” (http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/02/02/lancet.retraction.autism/index.html).

I feel for Ms. Estepp — and all of the other parents whose children have autism or other pervasive developmental disorders. But there’s no justification for medical journalists to continue to perpetuate a harmful myth that has led to unnecessary disease, disability, and even death, especially when the real story is that the myth has finally been busted.

On the other hand, kudos to ABC news, who didn’t succumb to the temptation to “balance” the story but instead emphasized the negative effects of the paper, many of which will never be undone:

“Dr. Gregory Poland, editor-in-chief of the journal VACCINE and director of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minn., called the Lancet’s action merely ‘procedural.’

‘What is more important is that an investigator, on the basis of false pretenses, published a paper and propelled a controversial hypothesis forward that led to decisions among individuals and groups to reject vaccination, with resultant outbreaks of these diseases,’ he said. ‘The results are highly significant: millions spent needlessly, hundreds of thousands — maybe even millions — unimmunized, and a fog of suspicion cast upon vaccines.’” (http://abcnews.go.com/Health/AutismNews/lancet-retracts-controversial-au...)