The British medical journal “The Lancet” has finally issued a full retraction of a study it ran in 1998 purporting to link the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccines to autism. Wakefield, et al., “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children,” Lancet 1998; 351: 637-641.
The journal noted that following the judgment of the U.K. General Medical Council’s “Fitness to Practice Panel” concerning the lead author, it had become clear to the journal that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield, et al., were “incorrect,” and contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation. Therefore, the journal “fully retracted” this paper from the published record.
Readers of MassTortDefense know how one article purporting to link a drug to a side effect, a chemical to an adverse effect, a product to an illness, can spawn significant products litigation, and even a mass tort. Here, the study not only influenced a decade of litigation, it spurred a public health crisis by sending parents in the U.K. and the U.S. into confusion over the safety of having their children vaccinated. The overwhelming scientific evidence shows vaccines to be safe, but The Lancet stuck by its article even when it was revealed that the study was connected to plaintiff lawyers’ pursuit of litigation. In the meantime, all children were put at risk as Great Britain’s child vaccination rates plummeted to below 70% in some areas, and by 2008 there were more than 1000 cases of measles, including fatalities, in England and Wales.
The Lancet article issues demonstrate how even reputable publications can become conduits for plaintiffs’ junk science and political junk science. It’s hard to fathom why it took so long for the retraction. It calls again for an overhaul of the peer review process, which the Supreme Court in Daubert noted as a hallmark of good science. Most importantly, it reminds the defense bar and their clients how important it is to have a thorough, searching examination of the science that plaintiffs rely on for general or specific causation. Nothing can be taken at face value, and sometimes only a dogged pursuit of discovery will uncover the many flaws in a seemingly well-regarded study.
Autism and related developmental disorders are an extremely challenging medical issue, deserving of time and resources. But the questions cannot be answered by junk science.