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Measles vaccine

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

The reports on a measles outbreak in Malta provide a good opportunity to remind readers about the research fraud which catalysed an anti-vaccination movement 20 years ago. This was the result of deception of both public and health carers by a report by Andrew Wakefield that appeared in The Lancet medical journal in 1998.

The report claimed to demonstrate a link between MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination and autism but was subsequently exposed as an elaborate fraud. Wakefield had altered his findings to support his claim. It was found that none of the 12 cases reported in the 1998 paper was free of misrepresentation and none of the medical records of the cases included in the study matched the descriptions, diagnoses or histories published in the report.

It was unanimously agreed that Wakefield had resorted to deliberate and gross misreporting to obtain the results he wanted and The Lancet report was retracted.

It also emerged that Wakefield had a conflict of interest as he was involved in a lawsuit with the manufacturers of the vaccine. The UK General Medical Council unanimously found him guilty of scientific dishonesty. His licence to practise medicine was withdrawn.

Subsequent epidemiological and virological surveillance in the following years consistently failed to reproduce any evidence suggestive of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

This research fraud had consequences because media interest was sparked and the bad publicity generated by Wakefield’s fraudulent report unleashed a major health scare. Parents started to refuse vaccination for their children, resulting in reduced vaccine rates.

There was a return of measles and other preventable illnesses and the damaging setback to public continues to this day with many people still unaware of the facts behind Wakefield’s false claims. Now, 30 years later, this continues to result in public health damage.

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