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Study Linking Vaccine to Autism Broke Research Rules, U.K. Regulators Say

MMR/Autism Doctor Acted 'Dishonestly,' 'Irresponsibly'
By Nicky Broyd
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Rob Hicks, MD

(Editor's Note: On Feb. 2, 2010, The Lancet formally retracted the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al., noting that claims made in the paper "have been proved to be false.")

Jan. 29, 2010 - The British doctor who led a study suggesting a link between the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly," a U.K. regulatory panel has ruled.

The panel represents the U.K. General Medical Council (GMC), which regulates the medical profession. It ruled only on whether Andrew Wakefield, MD, and two colleagues acted properly in carrying out their research, and not on whether MMR vaccine has anything to do with autism.

In the ruling, the GMC used strong language to condemn the methods used by Wakefield in conducting the study.

In the study, published 12 years ago, Wakefield and colleagues suggested there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Their study included only 12 children, but wide media coverage set off a panic among parents. Vaccinations plummeted; there was a subsequent increase in U.K. measles cases.

In 2004, 10 of the study's 13 authors disavowed the findings, originally published in the U.K. medical journal The Lancet. Investigative journalists in the U.K. later discovered that Wakefield -- prior to designing the study -- had accepted payment from lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers for causing autism.

Fitness to Practice

The GMC's Fitness to Practise panel heard evidence and submissions for 148 days over two and a half years, hearing from 36 witnesses. It then spent 45 days deciding the outcome of the hearing. Besides Wakefield, two former colleagues went before the panel -John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch. They were all found to have broken guidelines.

The disciplinary hearing found Wakefield showed a "callous disregard" for the suffering of children and abused his position of trust. He'd also "failed in his duties as a responsible consultant."

He'd taken blood samples from children attending his son's birthday party in return for money, and was later filmed joking about it at a conference.

He'd also failed to disclose he'd received money for advising lawyers acting for parents who claimed their children had been harmed by the triple vaccine.

Not Over Yet

The GMC will next decide whether Wakefield and his former colleagues committed serious professional misconduct. That could lead to being struck off the medical register. That decision may not be taken for several more months.

Wakefield wasn't in the hearing, but outside the GMC offices he told reporters, "Naturally I am extremely disappointed by the outcome of today's proceedings. The allegations against me and against my colleagues are both unfounded and unjust." He continued, "I invite anyone to examine the contents of these proceedings and come to their own conclusion."

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