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Wakefield was dishonest and irresponsible over MMR research, says GMC

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c593 (Published 29 January 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c593
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

    Andrew Wakefield, the gastroenterologist whose suggestion of a link between autism, bowel disease and the measles virus sparked a UK wide scare over the safety of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, has been found guilty of dishonesty and irresponsibility by the General Medical Council.

    The UK regulator held that Dr Wakefield abused his position, subjected children to intrusive procedures such as lumbar puncture and colonoscopy that were not clinically indicated, carried out research which flouted the conditions of ethics committee approval and brought the medical profession into disrepute.

    One of the biggest public health scares in UK history was triggered by Dr Wakefield’s study of 12 children, published in a paper in the Lancet 12 years ago (Wakefield AJ, et al. Lancet 1998;351:637-41). Although the paper conceded that it had not found a definite link, Dr Wakefield caused a furore when he suggested during a press conference at the Royal Free Hospital in north London, where he worked at the time, that single vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella might be preferable to a triple vaccine.

    The take up of the MMR vaccine plummeted and has still not fully recovered, whereas cases of measles have soared.

    Dr Wakefield, 52, failed to disclose to the Lancet that the study had received funding from the legal aid board through a solicitor who hoped to mount a legal action against the manufacturer, and that he had also filed a patent application for a new vaccine.

    His failure to mention these conflicts of interest was contrary to his duties as senior author of the Lancet paper, the GMC panel found, and he had dishonestly represented that the children in the paper had come through GPs or paediatricians by the standard route.

    Ten of the paper’s 13 authors later retracted the “interpretation” of the data (BMJ 2004;328:602; doi:10.1136/BMJ.328.7440.602-c). Subsequent research has found no evidence of a link between the vaccine and autism. Dr Wakefield left the Royal Free by mutual agreement and is now executive director of Thoughtful House Center for Children in Austin, Texas, which studies developmental disorders.

    Backed by a throng of supporters including parents of autistic children, he insisted outside the hearing in central London that the findings were “unfounded and unjust.”

    After a hearing lasting 148 days over two and a half years, the longest in the GMC’s history, he was also found guilty of a “callous disregard” for the distress and pain of children who had blood samples taken from them at his son’s birthday party and were paid £5 (€6;$8) each.

    The panel also ruled that two of his former colleagues at the Royal Free—retired professor of paediatric gastroenterology John Walker-Smith, 73, and Simon Murch, 53, now professor of paediatrics and child health at Warwick Medical School—who were co-authors of the Lancet paper, had carried out investigations which were not in the interests of children, without proper ethics approval.

    Decisions on whether they and Dr Wakefield were guilty of serious professional misconduct, and whether they should be struck off the medical register or receive a lesser sanction, will be taken at the final session of the marathon hearing, which starts in April.

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c593