Doctor Who Started Vaccine, Autism Debate in Ethics Row

Doc's critics and parent supporters say ethics debate is irrelevant to science.

ByABC News
January 31, 2010, 7:53 PM

Feb. 1, 2010— -- Parent activists who say vaccines can trigger autism, and scientists who say that hypothesis has been discredited, agreed on one point last week.

It won't change their debate if Dr. Andrew Wakefield -- the British doctor known widely for sparking international fear that vaccines cause autism -- loses his medical license for unethical behavior.

Wakefield has been found guilty of acting unethically during the time he conducted the famous, and now retracted, 1998 case report of 12 children that questioned if a childhood vaccine caused a new form of autism.

The United Kingdom's General Medical Council concluded Jan. 28 that Wakefield participated in "dishonesty and misleading conduct" while he conducted the 1998 research. Most of the findings against Wakefield are breaches of standard ethical codes meant to keep bias out of scientific journals.

But, according to one of the findings against the doctor, Wakefield took blood samples from children at his own child's birthday party, and paid them five British pounds for their trouble.

On Feb. 2, the Lancet retracted Wakefield's paper, explaining in a statement: "Following the judgment of the UK General Medical Council's Fitness to Practice Panel on Jan 28, 2010, it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al are incorrect ... in particular, the claims in the original paper that children were 'consecutively referred' and that investigations were 'approved' by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record."

"In some ways I think it's irrelevant," said Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the Section of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who has been twice threatened with lawsuits for critical statements he has made of Wakefield's work.

"His hypothesis was that by combining the MMR into a single shot that it was somehow weakening the immune system, causing the measles part of the vaccine to travel to the gut and cause damage, " Offit said.

That theoretical damage, according to Wakefield's hypothesis, could then theoretically travel into the bloodstream and cause (theoretical) damage to the brain -- perhaps causing autism symptoms.

"It created a firestorm," Offit said.

Parent advocacy groups jumped on the possibility of vaccines as a cause, or at least that gastrointestinal symptoms were a unique problem to children with Autism.

"The Autism Society strongly supports funding research into gastrointestinal pathology, as well as any links between this pathology and the symptoms of autism," the advocacy group said in a statement. "In this field, Dr. Wakefield's contributions to our families and members are greatly appreciated and there are many who support him in his research efforts."

The GMC panel also found Wakefield responsible for an ethics breach because he wrote that the children involved in the case report were referred to his clinic for stomach problems, when Wakefield knew nearly half of the children were actually part of a lawsuit looking into the effects of a measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Some children didn't have stomach issues at all.

The GMC also found that Wakefield failed to disclose he was paid in conjunction with the lawsuit, or that he had a patent related to a new MMR vaccine in development when he submitted the 12-child case report to be published in a scientific journal.

Wakefield declined an interview with, but issued a statement saying, "The allegations against me and against my colleagues are both unfounded and unjust and I invite anyone to examine the contents of these proceedings and come to their own conclusion."

Wakefield was found "proven" to have committed the ethical breaches by the GMC Fitness to Practice Panel, but his time before the government is not over yet.

On April 7, the GMC is scheduled to decide whether these breaches constitute "serious professional misconduct" and if so, how Wakefield will be reprimanded or whether he will lose his license.

Wakefield and his former colleagues may see their fate hanging on the April decision, but the public may not agree.

Scientists who say Wakefield's hypothesis has been discredited long ago with large studies finding no link between vaccines and autism view the ethical breaches as an interesting, but meaningless, side point.

Similarly, the parent groups who stood behind him in rallies and in press statements say his theories have led to anecdotally successful treatment in their children and also doubt that a finding by the GMC will change any minds.