Not that it ever had much credibility to begin with, but the anti-vaccine movement — including those, like actress Jenny McCarthy, who insist that vaccines cause autism — has lost one of the very few pillars of support it ever had. CNN reports on an action taken by the British medical journal Lancet (WebCite cached article):

The medical journal The Lancet on Tuesday retracted a controversial 1998 paper that linked the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism.

The 12-year-old study linked autism with the MMR vaccine. The research subsequently had been discredited.

While researchers have long known this paper had been flawed, the mere fact that Lancet had published it — and that it could still be referenced as having been in that prestigious journal — has lent the antivax movement more credibility than it deserved. But there are problems with it which could not be ignored, and the journal has taken action:

Last week, the study’s lead author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was found to have acted unethically in conducting the research.

The General Medical Council, which oversees doctors in Britain, said that “there was a biased selection of patients in The Lancet paper” and that his “conduct in this regard was dishonest and irresponsible.”

The panel found that Wakefield subjected some children in the study to various invasive medical procedures such as colonoscopies and MRI scans. He also paid children for blood samples for research purposes at his son’s birthday party, an act that “showed a callous disregard” for the “distress and pain” of the children, the panel said.

As I said, that there had been problems with Wakefield’s study, is not news to the medical community. The most recent — and perhaps compelling — evidence of its flaws:

A September 2008 study replicated key parts of Wakefield’s original paper and found no evidence that the vaccine had a connection to either autism or GI disorders. The study, conducted at Columbia University, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also found no relationship between the timing of the vaccine and children getting GI disorders or autism.

But the general public hasn’t been too aware of these problems, and the antivaxers have, of course, taken advantage of that:

The Wakefield study also became part of the evidence that parents cited who did not vaccinate their children.

“The story became credible because it was published in The Lancet,” Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation, said Tuesday. “It was in The Lancet, and we really rely on these medical journals.”

Singer, the mother of a child with autism, added, “That study did a lot of harm. People became afraid of vaccinations — this is the Wakefield legacy — this unscientifically grounded fear of vaccinations that result in children dying from vaccine preventable diseases.”

Unfortunately the mass media does little to educate people on how science actually works. You see, the truth about science is that it can, and does, change its mind; studies that were printed even in prestigious journals can turn out to have been fraudulent, or incomplete, or their conclusions found incorrect, etc. Science is self-correcting. Since the Wakefield paper was published 12 years ago, medical science has accepted that it was wrong … but the public has been slow to find that out. Hopefully that will change.

Note to Jenny McCarthy, Bill Maher, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other antivaxers … please pay attention … !

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