PARIS – A 1998 study that unleashed a major health scare by linking childhood autism to a triple vaccine was "an elaborate fraud," the British Medical Journal (BMJ) charged Thursday.
Blamed for a disastrous boycott of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine in Britain, the study was retracted by The Lancet last year and its senior author disgraced, after the country’s longest-running hearing, for conflict of interest and unethical treatment of patients.
But the BMJ, taking the affair further, on Thursday branded the paper a crafted attempt to deceive, among the gravest of charges in medical research.
"The paper was in fact an elaborate fraud," the BMJ said in an editorial, adding: "There are hard lessons for many in this highly damaging saga."
It pointed the finger at lead author Andrew Wakefield, then a consultant in experimental gastro-enterology at London’s Royal Free Hospital.
Wakefield and his team suggested they had found a "new syndrome" of autism and bowel disease among 12 children.
They linked it to the MMR vaccine, which they said had been administered to eight of the youngsters shortly before the symptoms emerged.
Other scientists swiftly cautioned the study was only among a tiny group, without a comparative "control" sample, and the dating of when symptoms surfaced was based on parental recall, which is notoriously unreliable. Its results have never been replicated.
But the controversy unleashed a widespread parental boycott of the jab in Britain, and unease reverberated also in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Hundreds of thousands of children in Britain are now unshielded against these three diseases, said the BMJ. In 2008, measles was declared endemic, or present in the wider population much like chicken pox, in England and Wales.
Wakefield was barred from medical practice last year on grounds of conflict of financial interest and unethical treatment of some children involved in the research.
The BMJ, delving into the accuracy of the study as opposed to its ethics, said Sunday Times investigative journalist Brian Deer had "unearthed clear evidence of falsification."
Not one of the 12 cases, as reported in the study, tallied fully with the children’s official medical records, it charged.
Some diagnoses had been misrepresented and dates faked in order to draw a convenient link with the MMR jab, it said.
Of nine children described by Wakefield as having "regressive autism," only one clearly had this condition and three were not even diagnosed with autism at all, it said.
The findings had been skewed in advance, as the patients had been recruited via campaigners opposed to the MMR vaccine, the journal added.
And, said the BMJ, Wakefield had been confidentially paid hundreds of thousands of pounds (dollars, euros) through a law firm under plans to launch "class action" litigation against the vaccine.
Deer, in a separate piece published by the BMJ, compared the scandal with the "Piltdown Man" hoax of 1953, when a supposed fossil of a creature half-man, half-ape turned out to be a fake.
The Wakefield study "was a fraud, moreover, of more than academic vanity. It unleashed fear, parental guilt, costly government intervention and outbreaks of infectious disease," he said.
Wakefield, who still retains a vocal band of supporters, has reportedly left Britain to work in the United States.
Wakefield and his publishing agent did not respond to calls and emails from AFP requesting comment.
Wakefield has previously accused Britain’s General Medical Council (GMC) of seeking to "discredit and silence" him and shield the British government from responsibility in what he calls a "scandal."
The Lancet told AFP it would not comment on the BMJ accusations.
Autism is the term for an array of conditions ranging from poor social interaction to repetitive behaviours and entrenched silence. The condition is rare, predominantly affecting boys, although its causes are fiercely debated.