How many times have you read or heard about the “debunked”1 2 3 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1998 that described “gastrointestinal and developmental regression in a group of previously normal children?”4 Probably lots of times, particularly if you follow the debate on the safety of vaccines and the ethics of mandatory vaccination.
It is interesting how often you find the word debunked in news reports promoting “consensus science” about the absolute safety of vaccines. The word debunked is especially prevalent in articles relentlessly attacking the “vaccine hesitant,” who are often characterized as irrational, selfish, scientifically illiterate “anti-vaxxers.” Journalists persist in engaging in name-calling when disparaging parents who either don’t want to vaccinate their children or, more often, do not want to give them all of the government recommended and mandated vaccines at precisely the times dictated, especially if their children have already had a serious reaction to previous vaccinations.
The 1998 paper published in The Lancet was retracted in 2010.5 It is often referenced by the media to reassure the public that the case series study of 12 children, which examined clinical evidence for a possible association between receipt of MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine and gastrointestinal illness accompanied by symptoms of regression, including loss of acquired skills such as language, was not only false but a deliberate hoax.
The 1998 Lancet article is often characterized by the media as the spark that led to the 21st century “anti-vaccine movement” and fueled unfounded concerns by parents about a potential link between vaccines and autism and the safety of vaccines in general.6 7 8 9 10
Although the media continually uses the word debunked to describe the study, it is unclear what exactly was debunked. To begin with, the study published in The Lancet was a clinical research paper written by a team of 13 doctors and consisting of a series of clinical observations of 12 children who had received the MMR vaccine and later developed gastrointestinal dysfunction, developmental delays, and a constellation of clinical symptoms of brain and immune dysfunction that doctors often diagnose as “autism.”4
In the Discussion section of the paper, the authors made it clear that they did “not prove an association between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described”—syndrome referring to the collection of gastrointestinal and behavior symptoms the authors observed. The authors added:
If there is a causal link between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and this syndrome, a rising incidence might be anticipated after the introduction of this vaccine in the UK in 1988. Published evidence is inadequate to show whether there is a change in incidence.4
The authors ended their paper by stressing that they had not proved there was a link between receipt of MMR vaccine by the 12 children they evaluated, who had been given a medical diagnosis of gastrointestinal illness and developmental delays.
We have identified a chronic enterocolitis in children that may be related to neuropsychiatric dysfunction. In most cases, onset of symptoms was after measles, mumps, and rubella immunisation. Further investigations are needed to examine this syndrome and its possible relation to this vaccine.4
In short, what the authors of the paper in The Lancet came up with was… We haven’t proven anything. We simply think our findings deserve further scientific investigation. Because we are concerned.
1 Belluz J. Research fraud catalyzed the anti-vaccination movement. Let’s not repeat history. Vox Mar. 5, 2019.
2 Buncombe A. Andrew Wakefield: How a disgraced UK doctor has remade himself in anti-vaxxer Trump’s America. Independent May 4, 2018.
3 Graham R. Vaccine Skeptics Are Excited About Donald Trump’s Presidency. Slate Nov. 30, 2016.
4 Wakefield AJ, Murch SH, Anthony A, Linnell J, Casson DM, Malik M, Berelowitz M, Dhillon AP, Thomson MA, Harvey P, Valentine A, Davies SE, Walker-Smith JA. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The Lancet Feb. 28, 1998; 351(9103): 637-41.
5 Eggerton L. Lancet retracts 12 year old article linking autism to MMR vaccines. CMAJ 2010; 182(4): E199-E200.
6 Belluck P, Abelson R. Vaccine Injury Claims Are Few and Far Between. The New York Times June 18, 2019.
7 Lombardi P, Bernstein B. Measles Outbreak Plagues Europe’s Young Adults. The Wall Street Journal July 4, 2019.
8 Mammoser G. Fact or Fiction: Debunking the Latest Anti-Vax Myths. Healthline Mar. 7, 2019.
9 Crane MA. Anti-vaccine hysteria is at an all-time high. Gov. Newsom isn’t helping. The Sacramento Bee June 11, 2019.
10 Max. I have autism and I am offended by the anti-vax movement. Newsweek June 19, 2019.
11 Renner B. Surprising Survey Shows 45% Of Americans Doubt Safety Of Vaccines. Study Finds June 25, 2019.
12 Streva V. New poll finds 45 percent of Americans still doubt the safety of vaccines. Philly Voice June 24, 2019.