Fresh dispute about MMR ‘fraud’

Pathology records are at the centre of a new disagreement over disgraced medic Andrew Wakefield.

Nature News

Published online 9 November 2011 | Nature 479, 157-158 (2011) | doi:10.1038/479157a

It is one of the most serious allegations that could be made about a doctor: manipulating patients’ histories to make money. So it is no wonder that the charges, levied by editors of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in January against medical researcher Andrew Wakefield, are still getting close scrutiny. Now an American whistleblower advocacy group has joined the fray over Wakefield, who in 1998 hypothesized a link, now scientifically disproven, between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism.

On 9 November, David Lewis of the National Whistleblower’s Center in Washington DC published a letter in the BMJ (http://bmj.com) arguing that Wakefield did not commit research fraud. Lewis told Nature that he thinks the combination of public charges and a slow, secretive investigation has left the public not knowing whom to believe and is unfair to the accused researcher. “[The system] throws people like Andy into a no-man’s-land,” Lewis says.

Wakefield was the lead author of a 1998 paper in The Lancet (A. J. Wakefield et al. Lancet 351, 637–641; 1998) reporting on the case histories of 12 children who had received the MMR vaccine and developed symptoms of autism or inflammatory bowel disease.

The paper inflamed public fears about vaccines, but it was retracted in 2010 after the UK General Medical Council (GMC) concluded that Wakefield had a charge of serious professional misconduct to answer, in part because it found that his team did not have proper ethical approval for tests performed on the children. Later in the year, the GMC found him guilty of the misconduct charge and revoked his licence to practice as a doctor. By then, more than 12 large-scale epidemiological studies had failed to find evidence of the hypothesized link (J. S. Gerber and P. A. Offit Clin. Infect. Dis. 48, 456–461; 2009) and the MMR vaccine is today regarded as safe.

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