MMR, Autism and Wakefield: Unringing the Bell

Dr. Paul A. Offit/photo by Mitchel Zoler

On February 14, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an essay by Dr. Paul A. Offit, pediatric infectious diseases specialist and childhood vaccine champion, with his take on recent developments in the Dr. Andrew Wakefield/autism/measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine fiasco. Dr. Offit, chief of infectious diseases at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has had a special interest in the spurious links between childhood vaccinations and autism, and he wrote a 2008 book on the subject.

On February 2, the editors of The Lancet retracted Dr. Wakefield’s controversial and ultimately fraudulent 1998 report that purported to document a causal link between administration of the MMR vaccine to children and their quick development of autism. Dr. Offit’s essay cited other scandalous events linked to the infamous paper, such as reporting by a British journalist that showed Dr. Wakefield received more than $750,000 from a personal-injury lawyer who planned to file lawsuits based on the autism links Dr. Wakefield reported in The Lancet.

Dr. Offit also cited some of the unfortunate consequences of Dr. Wakefield’s 1998 paper: “Wakefield’s belief that MMR caused autism has morphed into other strongly held beliefs: thimerosal…was responsible; or other vaccine ingredients, or too many vaccines given too soon.”

These cumulative vaccine slanders “had their effect,” Dr. Offit continued. “During the last few years, outbreaks of whooping cough in the United States have increased, in some instances mimicking epidemics seen in the pre-vaccine era. And, in 2009, three children in Philadelphia died from meningitis caused by” the Hemophilus influenzae type b bacterium, “which could have been safely and easily prevented” by following U.S. vaccine guidelines.

Even though The Lancet officially eradicated Dr. Wakefield’s 1998 report from the medical literature, it will be hard “to unring the bell,” Dr. Offit said in his essay yesterday. It is hard “to reassure people once you’ve scared them;” The Lancet’s retraction “will do nothing to restore the lives of children lost in this sad, tragic episode.”

—Mitchel Zoler (on Twitter @mitchelzoler)

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Filed under Drug And Device Safety, Family Medicine, IMNG, Infectious Diseases, Pediatrics, Practice Trends, Primary care

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