Falsification: The Andrew Wakefield case

The Andrew Wakefield case

One of the best-known examples of data falsification is a study described in a 1998 Lancet paper with Dr. Andrew Wakefield as the lead author. In this paper, 12 children with autism and chronic enterocolitis were described, and these symptoms started immediately after MMR (Measles / Mumps / Rubella) vaccination in 8 of these children.

However, a 2004 investigation by Sunday Times reporter Brian Deer revealed concerning issues with patient recruitment and undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

An investigation by the British General Medical Council found that most of the patient findings had been altered by Wakefield. Five of the 12 children had pre-existing development issues before they received the vaccine; in others, issues started months after the vaccination. Three of the 12 did not have autism. Nine of the children had normal results upon colonoscopy, but their records were changed to “non-specific colitis”. Source: Wikipedia entry on Andrew Wakefield.

In an editorial in BMJ, wrote:

Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross.

Fiona Godlee, Jane Smith, Harvey Marcovitch. Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. BMJ 2011;342:c7452

The Lancet retracted this paper in 2010.

This particular case of scientific misconduct has had large consequences. It led many people to believe that vaccinations cause autism – and still does. Both in the US as well as in Europe, measles cases are on the rise, partially because parents believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism.

A recent 10-year study on 657,461 children in Denmark – many orders of magnitude bigger than Wakefield’s study – showed that MMR vaccination was not associated with autism. Unfortunately, this study is unlikely to take anti-vaxers’ concerns away.

Further reading:

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