The lead author of that anti-vaccine study, which also appeared in one most respected medical journals, The Lancet, was British physician Andrew Wakefield. And its consequences include millions of terrified and confused parents, large drops in vaccination rates and death.
Yet while this "deliberate fraud" has been exposed, others continue to go unchallenged, or worse, get trumpeted by reporters who should know better.
Regarding Wakefield, many people, including me, have spent years puncturing his claims and those of his acolytes in the anti-vaccine movement. But a media that thrives on sensationalism instead played up the phony link.
Wakefield's 1998 Lancet article, comprising a grand total of 12 children, claimed to find a link between autism and the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella). Since then, study after study could find no connection:
- A 2004 U.S. Institute of Medicine report found no causal association between the MMR vaccine or thimerosal, a mercury-containing vaccine preservative formerly used in childhood vaccines, and autism.
- A 2005 Japanese study found autism rates in the city of Yokohama continued to increase at the same rate after the MMR was withdrawn.
- That same year the authoritative Cochrane Library, in a review of 139 studies, found "no credible evidence" linking the MMR to autism.
Nevertheless, trumpeted by activists and a sensationalist media, after the article appeared vaccination levels fell in both the U.K. and the U.S., while the diseases they prevented surged. "One person's research set us back a decade, and we're just now recovering from that," Mark Sawyer, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, told me.
California is suffering its worst pertussis (whooping cough) outbreak since 1947, with about 8,000 cases last year. In the 1980s, there were just a handful annually. Sixty percent of those hospitalized have been infants. Ten have died.
Coincidence? Pertussis expert Blaise Congeni of Akron Children's Hospital in Ohio calls California "the epicenter of vaccine refusal."
How tragic that everybody from The Lancet to the media to all those anti-vaccine groups, in the words of Britain's General Medical Council, acted so "irresponsibly" and sometimes "dishonestly," thus spreading Wakefield's lies.
Unfortunately, while this subject is getting tremendous attention, most fraudulent science, no matter how great the financial and human costs, goes undetected or, if somebody does do an expose, it's simply ignored.
Last year the World Health Organization, having exaggerated the world AIDS problem by 12-fold, then hyped SARS and then spent four years terrifying us over avian flu (remember avian flu?), converted the mildest flu strain in decades (swine flu H1N1) into the first flu pandemic in 41 years simply by rewriting the flu pandemic definition. Aiding it was a study in Science magazine that completely misrepresented the citations it used as authority.
Likewise, San Francisco last year became the first jurisdiction in the country to put warning labels on cell phones, influenced in great part by a series of studies published in peer-reviewed journals alleging they cause brain tumors. Yet they're all by a single environmental activist and totally fly in the face of the main body of research. Plus the city relied on an Environmental Working Group paper that used citations saying exactly the opposite of what the report claimed.
Even if the study methodology is fine, the accompanying press release often does a 180 spin -- and perception is all that counts. Thus, in 1998, researchers working for the WHO published a massive study on passive smoking that actually showed a statistically significant reduced risk for children of smokers, along with no increased risk of spouses and co-workers of smokers.
Naturally Big Tobacco touted it, whereupon the WHO, instead of saying flukes happen, released a statement declaring: "PASSIVE SMOKING DOES CAUSE LUNG CANCER, DO NOT LET THEM FOOL YOU."
Why does fraudulent science thrive? Better to ask, "Why not?" It pays.
Even when the fraudsters get caught, they often laugh all the way to the bank. Wakefield gets more than $300,000 a year from an anti-vaccine group. And he satisfies his loyal minions by simply saying of the BMJ editorial that his findings have been "replicated in five studies around the world." (In fact none of them shows an MMR-autism link.)
Meanwhile, society pays the price in fear, suffering and death. In other words, all that's different here is that a fraudster was exposed. Otherwise, it's business as usual.
Michael Fumento is a journalist, author and attorney. Please send all hate mail via his website at www.fumento.com.