Feature Autism Research

Wakefield’s “autistic enterocolitis” under the microscope

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c1127 (Published 15 April 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1127
  1. Brian Deer, journalist
  1. 1London

    Andrew Wakefield’s claims for a new bowel condition in autistic children have been largely overlooked in the furore over MMR vaccination. Brian Deer reports

    Twelve years ago, a now infamous and retracted paper appeared in the Lancet1 and launched a health scare. In it, researchers at the Royal Free medical school in London reported on 12 children with developmental disorders, and linked their problems to MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccination.

    It was the proposed link between the vaccine and “regressive” autism that caught the headlines and sparked alarm. But the paper also claimed to have discovered a new gut pathology, reported in 11 of the 12 children, which the lead author, Andrew Wakefield, an academic gastroenterologist, would dub “autistic enterocolitis.” “Researchers at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine may have discovered a new syndrome in children involving a new inflammatory bowel disease and autism,” the institution announced in a press release in February 1998.2“Their paper . . . also suggests that in a number of cases the onset of behavioural symptoms was associated with MMR vaccination.”

    Six years later, the vaccine link was dropped when 10 of the paper’s 13 authors retracted this claim3 in the wake of my investigation for the Sunday Times.4 And last month the entire paper was retracted,5 after a General Medical Council panel decided that Wakefield was “dishonest” and “unethical.”6

    Not a lot was said during the GMC hearing about “autistic enterocolitis”, which Wakefield continues to insist is real. In 2005 he established a private clinic in Austin, Texas, focusing on researching and treating this “syndrome”. And, although he resigned his post there after the GMC verdict, patients have been drawn from throughout America, and even the United Kingdom.

    “We continually find inflammatory bowel disease …

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