By John Stone
I am publishing my notes on the "at a glance" history of the MMR controversy from Charles Hymas article Facebook putting children's lives at risk by reviving spurious MMR claims, say UK healthchiefs (27 July).While Hymas is a former Sunday Times journalist, he possibly has a good record in investigating corruption but he is missing the mark here. For more detail reader's are referred to Vera Sharav's annotated account at AHRP L'affaire Wakefield.
"In 1998, respected medical journal The Lancet carried the results of a small-scale study (12 children) that claimed a link between the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) combined vaccine and autism and colitis in children."
This is untrue. The team carried out a review of a series of cases seen and treated on the basis of clinical need. It did not claim a link between MMR, autism and colitis but recorded medical histories and parental concerns. This is easily checkable against the text of the paper. In listening to parents’ concerns about vaccine reactions, the Royal Free team were manifestly acting more ethically than doctors who ignore them.
"The leader of the research team, Andrew Wakefield promoted mass media coverage of the study. MMR became the biggest science story of 2002 and the public’s confidence in the vaccine was seriously shaken and vaccination rates fell."
"Concerned over MMR safety, organisations such as the NHS, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Cochrane Library carried out large-scale epidemiological studies. These highlighted some adverse vaccine effects, such as rashes and joint pain, but could not replicate the findings of the original study."
"In 2004, Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer revealed that, two years prior to the research, Wakefield had been hired by lawyers from the UK’s legal aid fund, who were hoping to prove that the vaccine damaged children. This undeclared conflict of interest led to The Lancet partially retracting publication of the study."
It emerged at the GMC hearing that the Lancet knew of Wakefield's involvement in the court case nearly a year before publication of the paper, and although by convention acting as a court expert does not constitute "a conflict" Wakefield acknowledged his involvement in the case in a letter published in the Lancet in 1998, and it was never hidden. The pretence that this was news in 2004 - how for instance could the defendant pharmaceutical companies not know? - was itself a fake.
"The study was fully retracted in 2010, after allegations that the study data had been falsified. At the same time, the General Medical Council found Wakefield guilty of serious professional misconduct, unnecessarily invasive tests on children and multiple, undeclared conflicts of interest. He was struck off the medical register."
The findings of the GMC in respect of the paper were rejected by the High Court in 2012 in the appeal of Wakefield's senior colleague, Prof John Walker-Smith, which is misleadingly not mentioned. It was established that invasive tests were not in pursuance of a research protocol but conducted purely on the basis of clinical need, nor were the clinical decisions made by Andrew Wakefield, or either the paper or the investigations funded by legal aid. This decision were not appealed by the GMC, which remained party to injustice by not amending the findings against Wakefield or his other accused colleague Prof Simon Murch.
"The scientific consensus is that there is no causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism."
While this may be true it is of very little consequence given the political and institutional biases involved.
[This article was amended 10 October 2018]
John Stone is UK and Europe Editor for Age of Autism.