Experts Blame Lagging MMR Vaccination Rates on Discredited Study

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March 6, 2023 -- A discredited study that falsely proposed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism is still having a negative effect on child vaccination rates in the United States and the United Kingdom more than two decades later, medical experts say.

That appears to be the case in Columbus, Ohio, where local health authorities found that 80 of 85 children who got measles in an outbreak last year were unvaccinated. Parents said they were worried the MMR vaccine would give their children autism, a Columbus health department official told ABC News.

The 1998 study conducted in the United Kingdom and published in The Lancet did not prove an association between MMR and autism, but concluded that, "further investigations are needed to examine this syndrome and its possible relation to this vaccine."

The Lancet retracted the study after a 2004 investigation by a U.K. newspaper revealed multiple problems, including a conflict of interest for the lead researcher, Andrew Wakefield, that was not mentioned in the study. He received funding from a legal aid group that was seeking legal action on behalf of parents who believed the MMR vaccine harmed their children. 

Wakefield lost his medical license and 10 of 13 co-researchers signed a letter retracting their support for the findings, but the study scared some parents away from the vaccine and led to measles outbreaks.

"It was an irresponsible publication, and it set off a firestorm,” Paul Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the division of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told ABC News.

ABC News, citing CDC data, said 90.8% of children aged 24 months have gotten at least one dose of MMR vaccine, down from the peak of 91.5% in 2003. Only 93.5% of kindergartners received both doses of the vaccine for the 2021-22 school year. That’s the lowest percentage in a decade but the COVID pandemic may be a partial cause, ABC News said.

In the U.K., MMR vaccination rates went from 91% before the debunked study was published to 81% by 2004, ABC News reported, citing an independent think tank.

"We eliminated measles from the United States in the year 2000 and since then, measles has come back," Offit said. "I think the summary of all that for me is that while it's very easy to scare people, it's hard to unscare them."

Wakefield has continued to stand by his research and the 1998's paper's findings, ABC News said.