Sometimes, the pressure is so intense that researchers will even lie and cheat to advance their careers. Needing publishable results to survive, frustrated that their results are not turning out the way they want, and fearful that others will publish similar results first, researchers sometimes take the short cut of manufacturing data. After all, if you are certain that your theory is true, what harm is there in making up data to prove it?
One serious example of this kind of deception is the vaccine scare created by the British doctor Andrew Wakefield. His 1998 co-authored paper in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet claimed that 12 normal children had become autistic after being given the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Even before the paper was published, Wakefield held a press conference announcing his findings and calling for the suspension of the MMR vaccine.
Many parents read the news reports and thought twice about what was previously a de rigeur procedure. The possibility of making their children autistic seemed more worrisome than the minute chances of contracting diseases that had been virtually eradicated from Britain. More than a million parents refused to allow their children to be given the MMR vaccine.
I live in the United States, but my wife and I read the news stories and we worried, too. We had sons born in 1998, 2000, and 2003, and a daughter born in 2006, so we had to make a decision about their vaccination. We did our homework and talked to doctors, all of whom were skeptical of Wakefield’s study. They pointed out that there is no evidence that autism has become more commonplace, only that the definition of autism has broadened in recent years and that doctors and parents have become more aware of its symptoms. On the other hand, measles, mumps, and rubella are highly contagious diseases that had been effectively eliminated in many countries precisely because of routine immunization programs. Leaving our children unvaccinated would not only put them but other children at risk as well. In addition, the fact that this study was so small (only twelve children) and the author seemed so eager for publicity were big red flags. In the end, we decided to give our children the MMR vaccine.
The doctors we talked to weren’t the only skeptics. Several attempts to replicate Wakefield’s findings found no relationship at all between autism and the MMR vaccine. Even worse, a 2004 investigation by a London Sunday Times reporter named Brian Deer uncovered some suspicious irregularities in the study. It seemed that Wakefield’s research had been funded by a group of lawyers envisioning lucrative personal-injury lawsuits against doctors and pharmaceutical companies. Even more alarmingly, Wakefield himself was evidently planning to market an alternative vaccine that he could claim as safe. Were Wakefield’s conclusions tainted by these conflicts of interest?
Wakefield claimed no wrongdoing, but Deer kept digging. What he found was even more damning: the data in Wakefield’s paper did not match the official National Health Service medical records. Of the nine children who Wakefield reported to have regressive autism, only one had actually been diagnosed as such; three had no autism at all. Wakefield reported that the twelve children were “previously normal” before the MMR vaccine, but five of them had documented developmental problems.
Most of Wakefield’s co-authors quickly disassociated themselves from the paper. The Lancet retracted the article in 2010, with an editorial comment, “it was utterly clear, without any ambiguity at all, that the statements in the paper were utterly false.” The British Medical Journal called the Wakefield study “an elaborate fraud,” and the UK General Medical Council barred Wakefield from practicing medicine in the UK. Unfortunately, the damage was done. Hundreds of unvaccinated children have died from measles, mumps, and rubella to date, and thousands more are at risk. In 2011, Deer received a British Press Award, commending his investigation of Wakefield as a “tremendous righting of a wrong.” We can only hope that the debunking of Wakefield will receive as much press coverage as his false alarms, and that parents will once again allow their children to be vaccinated.