Feature Secrets of the MMR scare

How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c5347 (Published 06 January 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:c5347
  1. Brian Deer, journalist
  1. 1London, UK
  1. briandeer.com

In the first part of a special BMJ series, Brian Deer exposes the bogus data behind claims that launched a worldwide scare over the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, and reveals how the appearance of a link with autism was manufactured at a London medical school

When I broke the news to the father of child 11, at first he did not believe me. “Wakefield told us my son was the 13th child they saw,” he said, gazing for the first time at the now infamous research paper which linked a purported new syndrome with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.1 “There’s only 12 in this.”

That paper was published in the Lancet on 28 February 1998. It was retracted on 2 February 2010.2 Authored by Andrew Wakefield, John Walker-Smith, and 11 others from the Royal Free medical school, London, it reported on 12 developmentally challenged children,3 and triggered a decade long public health scare.

“Onset of behavioural symptoms was associated by the parents with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination in eight of the 12 children,” began the paper’s “findings.” Adopting these claims as fact,4 its “results” section added: “In these eight children the average interval from exposure to first behavioural symptoms was 6.3 days (range 1-14).”

Mr 11, an American engineer, looked again at the paper: a five page case series of 11 boys and one girl, aged between 3 and 9 years. Nine children, it said, had diagnoses of “regressive” autism, and all but one were reported with “non-specific colitis.” The “new syndrome” brought these together, linking brain and bowel diseases. His son was the penultimate case.

Running his finger across the paper’s tables, over coffee in London, Mr 11 seemed reassured by his anonymised son’s age and other details. But then he …

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