THE REVOCATION of Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s license to practice medicine in Britain comes too many years too late.
It was back in 1998 that Wakefield, who now stands accused of unethical and irresponsible research, published a medical article suggesting a link between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Since then, the research has been discredited by follow-up studies that failed to find a link between the vaccine and the disease. As far back as 2004, 10 of Wakefield’s original co-authors retracted the findings of the article in a letter to The Lancet, the prestigious medical journal where it was initially published. Puzzlingly, it took the journal six more years to issue its own official retraction, which came out in February.
By then, alas, the damage had been done. The work worried millions of parents and prompted many others to endanger their children’s health by declining vaccination. Scientifically unproven treatments, modeled on a theory of autism spearheaded by Wakefield, have been given to children in attempts to treat the condition.
But sadder still is the possibility that, in the minds of thousands of parents desperately clinging to hopes of finding a cure for autism, Wakefield’s legend might survive untarnished, possibly even exalted. In reality, his work on autism offers an unfortunate example of poor research trumping the scientific method.