In 1998, The Lancet, a leading British medical journal, published a research study that triggered one of the biggest health scares of modern times. It claimed that autism was linked to children's vaccines. The evidence was sketchy - it was based on only 12 cases - but Andrew Wakefield, its lead author, became an instant media celebrity.
Over the next few years, Dr. Wakefield was depicted as a courageous maverick who dared to defy the medical establishment. People's trust in public health - already tested by the mad-cow scare - collapsed and vaccination rates plunged. Before The Lancet article, the vaccination rate for MMR - the three-in-one shot for measles, mumps and rubella - had reached 91 per cent. A few years later, the rate had slipped to less than 50 per cent in some parts of London, and was far too low to prevent serious outbreaks. In 2008, measles was again declared endemic in the U.K.
The vaccination hysteria proved contagious. In Canada and the U.S., anti-vaccination groups warned about the dangers of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in vaccines (although never used in the MMR one). Parent groups blamed vaccines and environmental toxins for what they said was an autism epidemic. They launched multimillion-dollar lawsuits (all unsuccessful) against vaccine makers, whose product costs, because of legal bills, went up.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. accused the U.S. government and top scientists of a vast conspiracy to cover up the link between vaccines and autism, and celebrity autism mom Jenny McCarthy argued the case on Oprah .
It's hard to blame parents of autistic kids for grasping at causes and cures. The causes are poorly understood, and the chance of cure is exceedingly remote. Life with an autistic child is unrelentingly hard. Untested treatments, and claims of cure, run rampant. The field is prone to "pseudoscience and quackery," says Michael Fitzgerald, a British autism expert and long-time critic of Dr. Wakefield.
Since the Lancet study was published, mountains of scientific studies have found no link between vaccines and autism. In a series of investigative articles published several years ago, Britain's Sunday Times reported that Dr. Wakefield had been secretly working on a rival vaccine and that he had been paid more than £400,000 by British trial lawyers trying to prove that the existing vaccine was dangerous. And yet it took until this week for The Lancet to retract Dr. Wakefield's study. It did so only after Britain's General Medical Council held an exhaustive inquiry and condemned him for acting dishonestly and irresponsibly.
It's doubtful The Lancet's retraction will have much effect, because the damage has already been done. "It's very easy to scare people; it's very hard to unscare them," Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told The Wall Street Journal. In fact, activists say Dr. Wakefield's credibility will strengthen among those who are convinced the truth is being covered up. "The deep and profound censorship occurring around autism science reaches depths that few casual observers can imagine," wrote Mark Blaxill, a director of the autism group SafeMinds. "I have proof."
The Lancet article is said by some to have done more damage than anything published in a scientific journal in living memory. It came at a time when respect for expertise and medical authority (as for all authority) is on the wane, and when fears about the toxins around us are on the rise. It shows that science is no match for superstition, especially in an age when conspiracy-minded people can band together and stoke one another's paranoia on the Web.
That paranoia has spread to millions. Vaccines to wipe out deadly childhood diseases are among the greatest triumphs of public health. But a sizable number of parents I know wonder if they're really safe.