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Were the original data linking vaccines and autism faked?

by Phil Plait, Feb 11 2009

The UK-based Sunday Times has a potential bombshell on their site; they claim Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who started the whole "vaccines cause autism" garbage, faked his data to make that claim.

About 10 years ago, Wakefield published a study dealing with children who were autistic, developing symptoms shortly after getting their shots, and linked this with irritated intestinal tracts. This study came under a lot of fire, and eventually most of the authors retracted the conclusion that autism was associated with "environmental factors", that is, vaccinations. By then, though, it was too late, and the modern antivaccination movement was born.

The Sunday Times investigated Wakefield’s original research, and alleges that the symptoms Wakefield reports in his research do not match hospital records of the 12 children studied at the time. In only one case were there symptoms that arose after the injection; in many of the other cases symptoms started before the children had been vaccinated (in fact, there have been allegations for some time that neurological issues occurred in the children before they had actually been vaccinated, casting doubt on Wakefield’s work). Also, hospital pathologists reported that the bowels of many of the children were normal, but Wakefield reported them as having inflammatory disease in his journal paper.

If these allegations are true, then it means that Wakefield out-and-out lied in his original work. He has denied this, according to the Sunday Times, but won’t make further comments.

This may cause a firestorm in the antivax community, but there are two things I will guarantee: the first is that in the end antivaxxers will stick to their beliefs that vaccines cause health problems like autism, because this is not and never has been, for them, about the facts and evidence. It’s a belief system, and like most other belief systems, it is impenetrable to evidence. If you have any doubts, I suggest you read the comments to the post I made the other day about measles being on the rise in the UK. One commenter on that post is saying all manners of outrageous things, and ignores the evidence that I (and a pediatrician) have left in the comments to him.

Second, and somewhat related, this hardly matters. Many, many independent tests have shown that vaccines are unrelated to the onset of autism. There is vast evidence that vaccines are very safe, and what small risk they pose is massively outweighed by the good they do. Whether Wakefield faked his results or not, he’s still wrong.

The good news is that if this pans out, then perhaps there will be a net loss of people from the antivax side of the argument. The ones who are true believers won’t waver in their faith, of course, but anyone with doubts may finally see reality for the way it is.

I will be very interested indeed on following this story. If anyone finds more information, please send it along.

Tip o’ the syringe to BABloggee Todd Cissell.

29 Responses to “Were the original data linking vaccines and autism faked?”

  1. I wonder if there is any applicable criminal code law that covers this, or at least civil law that allows injured parties to sue this guy if it proves out he knowingly faked research.

  2. SionH says:

    @Devil’s Advocate – Look up Dr Wakefield on Wikipedia and it’ll give you the details of his ongoing come-uppance. Don’t know if it counts as ‘criminal’ as you meant it (I’m no lawyer), but it’s a start.

  3. greg says:

    At the same time, there has been a bit of a brouhaha surrounding Ben Goldacre, with regard to his posting a full copy of a 15 minute radio segment by Jeni Barnett who was ranting against vaccines and blasting her for her dangerous and ignorant anti-vaccine propagandizing.

  4. Xplodyncow says:

    I’ve been reading a lot of bad press for Merck’s Gardasil vaccine–you know, evil Big Pharma rushed this drug to market, and now it’s hurting innocent young women. Is there truth to this claim, or has this vaccine been lumped together with the overall antivaccine movement?

  5. greg says:

    @Xplodyncow – the ‘evidence’ that Gardasil is dangerous hasn’t been verified. All the reports that the press is pointing to are from VAERS, which is a system for people to report problems that may or may not have resulted from a vaccine or drug. Those reports are rarely ever actually checked to see if there is any causal effect from the drug. No actual studies of Gardasil have found there to be any significant risk of dangerous side-effects.

    For full disclosure, I should note that I work for an organization which is one of the primary groups promoting the VAERS information as evidence that Gardasil is dangerous. Personally, I find our analysis to be quite lacking in anything except for hype.

  6. catgirl says:

    This is very interesting to me. I have been following the autism/vaccine research from the beginning, when I happened to read about it in New Scientist. When I first saw the results of this study, I thought that it doesn’t prove much with such a small sample size, and thought its value was in directing further study, which has been done. I was certainly open to the possibility that there is a connection, but after the large Japanese study, I saw that the evidence just doesn’t support the connection. Still, I wondered why the original study had different results than the larger, more thorough studies, and I thought it was just a statistical fluke. I may be naive for never suspecting fraud, but the results of this study were disproven anyway by further studies, which is supposed to be how science works. I guess it doesn’t matter if a study flawed either intentionally or unintentionally, because science is self-correcting. It would be great if everyone thought of it that way, but many people don’t understand that about science. So, I think the revelation of the fraud will change some people’s minds about vaccination. The hardcore anti-vaxxers probably won’t change their mind, but I think plenty of people who are on the fence will.

  7. Jim Shaver says:

    On MSNBC last night, Keith Olbermann summarized the Andrew Wakefield and autism-vaccine fiasco quite nicely and named Wakefield the day’s “Worst Person in the World!” I pumped my fist in the air when I saw that.

  8. Mastriani says:

    ::gasp:: ::shock:: ::awe:: “eek!””


    Very interesting article and capture of fraud, but who the hell am I trying kid, I’m not the least bit surprised. Standard behavior for a hominid with an overt, (covert?), agenda.

  9. Mike says:

    Phil didn’t mention that Wakefield at the time he was doing the research was acting as a consultant for the lawyers representing parents who believed their children had been damaged by the MMR vaccine and were trying to sue the manufacturers. I believe he received £100k. This one of the issues in his ongoing GMC Professional Misconduct Hearing as he failed to mention this potential conflict of interest.

    I hope he is hung out to dry by the GMC – bad science, bad scientist. because of him I am seeing kids with measles again – not a difficult diagnosis to make as they are usually so bl**dy ill.

  10. Infinite Monkey says:

    First of all, I don’t think this will have any effect on the antivax movement. No amount of debunking will stop a crazy idea from spreading. Look at ghosts, UFO’s, and cryptozoology.

    Secondly, I’ve heard of the HPV vaccine, and my only reservation about that is its new and schools here are trying to make it part of required immunization. I’m all for people getting their kids immunized with this at will, and I’m all for encouraging it, but I serious doubt it has been studied long enough to know how it will effect a woman long term. As such, I don’t think it should be REQUIRED.

    I take this stand not because I question Big Pharma, but because so many drugs have been passed by the FDA only to be recalled after taking a closer look at them.

  11. Doubting Foo says:

    In the UK you can get arrested for talking bad about religion but something like this? I would hope so…

  12. Mastriani says:

    Dr. Wakefield reeks of the odious stench of failure as a human.

    Well done Dr., well done, you have arrived and apprehended the nadir.


  13. Tiffany says:

    All these viruses we thought we killed off but that are now coming back because people think all vaccines are bad. I sure have my reserves on some of the things we inject into ourselves, but how many people are we saving vs. those getting sick from these vaccines?

    I sure hope the guy’s research was faked. But like you said it doesn’t mean it will get trough to some of the lovely people out there.

    Good blog I like it

  14. I am certain that even if the findings show the initial data was faked, people will still be peddling the anti-vaccine BS.

  15. greg says:

    more fun news: Court Rules Autism Not Caused by Childhood Vaccines. but i’m sure that the judges are in big pharma’s pocket of course.

  16. KenF says:

    I just heard response from the plantiff side on today’s court ruling. They are already squawking about the decision being “rigged” because of big pharma lobbying etc.

  17. Laih says:

    @greg: I read that story on cnn, and whoo-boy! The anti-vax people are already up in arms! It’s really disheartening, especially when the evidence they give to support their claims is anecdotal at best. We’re not even going to touch their fallacious logic and very vaguely worded “studies” that support their claims.

    I guess what really bothers me is that these people appear to remain *willfully* ignorant, and ultimately it harms everyone.

  18. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    Criticising Wakefield is like criticising a religious figure. He and the Geiers seem to be worshiped. Their word is scripture. Doesn’t matter if their claims are contradicted by facts.

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.

  19. Chiot's Run says:

    The new finding that HFCS has mercery in it may be more of a cause for autism rather than the vaccines.

  20. Chris says:

    Chiot’s Run said “The new finding that HFCS has mercery in it may be more of a cause for autism rather than the vaccines.”

    Link to paper please? Or are you just making it up?

    In reality HFCS is not used for much, because it is expensive. Plus the data in the original paper were old. New methods do no use mercury in the process.

  21. greg says:

    One man and one study was not responsible for the antivax movement. What about the “secret ingredients” in vaccines? You don’t know about those? That’s because it is covered by trade secret protection. Your doctor is not entitled to know all the ingredients in the vaccine he is jabbing into your arm. If you read patents for vaccine adjuvants and culture mediums, it reads just like the list of food allergies…. Gee, do ya think if I used a mixture of peanut oil, soy oil, and fish oil in the aluminum adjuvant and there was a trace amount of food protein, maybe that would be a direct cause of food allergies?????

  22. HCN says:

    greg said …well, actually nothing much but an uneducated conspiracy rant…

    Do you have any evidence that vaccines are the evil you claim they are?

    Each year over a dozen American infants die each year from pertussis, and that number has been increasing as herd immunity has been eroded due to the stupidity like the rant you posted. How about you give us the real actual scientific evidence that the DTaP is more dangerous than pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus, AND that the MMR is more dangerous than measles, mumps and rubella (which are also increasing in Europe and North America).

  23. Patriarch Verlch says:

    Vaccines are a great idea. But how far do you think rich men would go to create diseases they have patented Vaccines for.

    It is the ingredients I am worried about. MSG, aspartame, formaldehyde, and thirmasil or mercury.

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to want healthy things put into your babies body.

  24. Max says:

    greg (post #22), That’s right, I don’t know about any “secret ingredients” in FDA-approved drugs. My understanding is that all the ingredients are disclosed and protected by patents rather than trade secrets. Can you prove otherwise?

  25. HCN says:

    Patriarch Verlch said some silly things…

    So Patriarch, how do you plan to prevent formaldehyde from going inside any human being when it is inside fruit, and is created naturally inside human cells?

    And do you think babies would do better with the toxins created by the pertussis, tetanus and diphtheria bacteria? How would you protect a child from getting measles if it becomes endemic again?

  26. Dare says:

    An article from Scientific America
    “A Medical Madoff: Anesthesiologist Faked Data In 21 Studies”

  27. Chris says:

    Dare, that has been written on ScienceBasedMedicine, Neurologica and many of the ScienceBlogs members (like Orac).

    By the way, it has absolutely nothing to do with vaccines or Wakefield (other than more scientific fraud).

  28. Tracy says:

    Perhaps his data was correct, but the companies behind the vaccine knew the loss they would take and made sure his studies and work were quickly smashed in the public eye.

    What did the Dr. have to gain by lying ? What did the companies stand to lose ?

    Just a thought.