How a Now-Retracted Autism Study Went Viral -- Again

Retracted study linking autism and vaccines has lingering fallout.

ByABC News
October 9, 2014, 2:20 PM

— -- An autism study that was slammed by experts and retracted this week by its publisher is still alive and well on the Internet, thanks to what critics are calling a perfect storm of lax publishing standards.

Experts say the lone study author played fast and loose with statistics to show a link between autism and the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella, some experts going as far as saying that the author deliberately did this, but the dubious results took off online anyway, quickly going viral.

“There are always going to be those people at the edges of science who want to shout because they don’t want to believe what the data are showing,” said Dr. Margaret Moon, a pediatrician and bioethicist at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. She said she thought the study author “manipulated the data and manipulated the media in a very savvy and sophisticated way.”

“It’s not good. It’s not fair. It’s not honest. But it’s savvy,” Moon said.

Author Stands by Research

The study author, California biomechanical engineer Brian Hooker, did a re-analysis of a 2004 autism study after one of its co-authors, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health scientist William Thompson, said he had qualms about the original findings. Thompson said data was omitted, which skewed the results to show that there was no link. So Hooker got the data, added to it and ran his own calculations.

Hooker said he never intended to dupe anyone and stands by his research –- though he admits he has some bias because he has an autistic son whom he believes has been “vaccine-injured.”

“If I was just attempting to defraud people, why would I put myself through such scrutiny,” Hooker told ABC News in a phone interview, adding that he’s had more than 50 other studies published in scientific journals -- albeit in other fields –- without ever having a retraction. “Why would I go to the effort and risk in terms of my career?”

Hooker also serves on the board of Focus Autism, a nonprofit organization whose mission includes education about how vaccinations play a role in “chronic illnesses in general,” according to its website.

“Do vaccines cause every case of autism? No. Do they play a major role in autism epidemic? The government’s own research points to ‘yes,’” the site reads.

The So-Called Whistle Blower

Ten months ago, Hooker said he started talking to William Thompson, a scientist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thompson worked on a 2004 autism study published in the medical journal Pediatrics that found no link between autism and vaccines, but he now claims the researchers omitted data that would have shown that there was indeed a link.

“I regret that my co-authors and I omitted statistically significant information in our 2004 article published in the journal Pediatrics,” Thompson said in a statement through his lawyer. “The omitted data suggested that African-American males who received the MMR vaccine before age 36 months were at increased risk for autism. Decisions were made regarding which findings to report after the data were collected, and I believe that the final study protocol was not followed.”

The 2004 study relied on birth certificates to determine race and other factors thought to contribute to autism, such as low birth weight and parental age. But birth certificates were missing for 260 black boys who were excluded from the analysis. Hooker set out to do a “re-analysis” of the 2004 study, relying on school records as an indicator of race to expand the pool of black boys. He published his results in the journal Translational Neurodegeneration on Aug. 8, concluding that black boys who received the MMR vaccine before 36 months were 3.4 times more likely to have autism than those who did not.

‘There Was No Cover-Up’

The CDC said it stands behind its original study conclusions, telling ABC News that the work went through several layers of vetting, including a review by a panel of five experts outside the agency. Though they found slightly more children with autism were vaccinated between the ages of 2 and 3, they attributed this to immunization requirements for early special education programs.

“There was no cover-up,” the CDC said in a statement to ABC News. “When data are collected in a specific way for a specific type of statistical analysis (a case-control study in this instance), using those data in a different type of analysis can produce confusing results. Because the methods in Dr. Hooker’s re-analysis were not described in detail, it is hard to speculate why his results differed from CDC’s.”

Hooker stands by his study, explaining that if he wanted to commit fraud, he would have drawn less “benign” conclusions.

“I think if I was really trying to defraud people, I would have gone a lot stronger with my conclusion. But my scientific integrity would not let me go further,” he said.

“What I’m most interested in doing is raising the question,” Hooker added, insisting that he wasn't out to change the vaccine schedule or give medical advice since he’s not a medical doctor. “People can hammer away at my statistics all they want.”

Experts Slam the Re-analysis

Experts say Hooker’s study was fundamentally flawed. There’s no mention of how many children were included in his analysis –- an omission that Vanderbilt University biostatistician Bill Dupont called “extremely rare” –- and he failed to properly control for factors known to contribute to autism risk.

“All he did was one analysis and said there are no other variables that might be impacting this,” said Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. “You can’t just analyze data without asking questions.”

Experts said it’s also not clear how Hooker used the CDC data set, which was not designed for the type of statistical breakdown he performed, to draw his conclusions.

“The general rule of statistics is that the way you analyze the data needs to follow from the way data was collected,” Dupont said. “Hooker ignores [the CDC’s] study design entirely.”

Dupont said the data set wasn't ideal for either study because it didn't include when the children were diagnosed with autism. Some of the children could have been vaccinated after they developed autism –- a possibility that Dupont said would have prompted an overestimate of the risk of autism associated with the MMR vaccine.

It Goes Viral

Hooker’s study percolated in anti-vaccination circles for weeks but quickly moved mainstream after CNN iReport –- the cable news network’s “citizen journalism” site –- ran a story titled “Fraud at the CDC uncovered, 340% increased risk of autism hidden from public.” The Aug. 24 story, along with a similar iReport titled “CDC Autism Whistleblower Admits Vaccine Study Fraud,” has garnered more than 786,000 views and 256,000 shares on social media.

Though both iReports were “flagged” for further review by CNN with editor’s notes stating than none of the stories’ claims had been verified, they remain published on the site.

“iReport is a social network for news with more than one million members globally. All content and headlines are user generated,” CNN said in a statement to ABC News. “It has not been determined that the iReport in question violates our community guidelines. However, the content was not vetted nor approved for use on any of CNN's editorial platforms.”

Journal Pulls the Re-analysis

On Aug. 27, Translational Neurodegeneration –- a peer-reviewed journal -– pulled Hooker’s study from its online publication and left the following note in its place:

“This article has been removed from the public domain because of serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions. The journal and publisher believe that its continued availability may not be in the public interest. Definitive editorial action will be pending further investigation.”

The journal declined to comment further pending its own investigation. Hooker said he was told the journal removed his study “temporarily” because his ties to Focus Autism presented a conflict of interest.

More than a month later, on Oct. 3, the journal issued an official retraction:

“The Editor and Publisher regretfully retract the article as there were undeclared competing interests on the part of the author which compromised the peer review process. Furthermore, post-publication peer review raised concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis, therefore the Editors no longer have confidence in the soundness of the findings. We apologise to all affected parties for the inconvenience caused.”

The journal did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment on the retraction.

Still Viral

But the now-pulled study is still making the rounds online, thanks in part to two highly produced YouTube videos that compare the alleged cover-up to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the Holocaust. The videos, which have received a combined 124,000 views, are narrated by Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 study linking vaccines and autism was retracted and declared “an elaborate fraud” in 2011 by the British Medical Journal. Wakefield lost his medical license in the ordeal but continues to be a prominent figure in the anti-vaccine community.

“This is the real story of a real fraud,” narrated Wakefield, who continues to be a force in the anti-vaccine community despite losing his medical license. “Deliberate, high-level deception of the American people with disastrous consequences for its children’s health.”

The video also features the apparent voice of the so-called CDC whistleblower, Thompson.

“Oh my god, I cannot believe we did what we did. But we did,” the man says in what sounds like a recorded telephone interview in the video’s dramatic opening. “It’s all there.”

Whistleblower Speaks Out

Thompson said he didn't know Hooker was recording their phone conversations and “was not given a choice” about whether his name would be publicized. In a statement issued through his lawyer he confirmed his concerns about the 2004 study findings but stressed that he believes “vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives.”

“I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race,” he said in the statement.

The CDC confirmed that Thompson continues to be employed by the agency despite what he said were rumors that he was escorted from the building when his identity was exposed.

Doctors’ Advice

While studies have consistently refuted any link between vaccines and autism, the CDC acknowledges that the shots occasionally have side effects, which normally include a mild fever but in rare cases can include seizures. Still, the CDC says the benefits outweigh the risks, and advises parents to talk to their family physicians if they have concerns.

“I love it when my patients come to me with questions,” said Moon. “Science can never be nimble or slick enough to protect against the charlatans. ... In the long run, data that makes sense will continue to make sense and questions will be answered as they come up.”

PHOTO: Brian Hooker, left, appears in a film about how he conducted a now-unpublished study linking autism and the MMR vaccine. Andrew Wakefield, right, famous for his own fraudulent autism and MMR study, directed the film.
Brian Hooker, left, appears in a film about how he conducted a now-unpublished study linking autism and the MMR vaccine. Andrew Wakefield, right, famous for his own fraudulent autism and MMR study, directed the film. Wakefield’s 1998 study was retracted in 2011.