The New York Times – Researchers Retract a Study Linking Autism To Vaccination :
Ten of the 13 scientists who produced a 1998 study linking a childhood vaccine to several cases of autism retracted their conclusion yesterday.
In a statement to be published in the March 6 issue of The Lancet, a British medical journal, the researchers conceded that they did not have enough evidence at the time to tie the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, known as MMR, to the autism cases. The study has been blamed for a sharp drop in the number of British children being vaccinated and for outbreaks of measles.
”We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient,” the researchers said in the retraction. ”However, the possibility of such a link was raised and consequent events have had major implications.”
The study came under fierce criticism last month when the editor of the Lancet said that the lead author of the report, Dr. Andrew Wakefield had failed to reveal that he had a conflict of interest when he conducted the research. At the time, the journal editors said, Dr. Wakefield was also gathering information for lawyers representing parents who suspected their children had developed autism because of the vaccine.
This is enormous. Faked data and financial conflict of interest. And the Lancet is at the heart of another controversial study that looks more and more bogus as we learn more. The other one under fire is the Iraq civilian deaths study, in which the scientist refuses to disclose his data or methods.
In the big picture, science discovered its mistakes. Or at least, acknowledged the mistakes when someone else discovered them. The system more or less worked. It just took time.
However, in the time science took to correct itself there was already a toll on human life:
Despite involving just a dozen children, the 1998 paper¬’s impact was extraordinary. After its publication, rates of inoculation fell from 92% to below 80%. Populations acquire ¬”herd immunity¬” from measles when more than 95% of people have been vaccinated.
Last week official figures showed that 1,348 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales were reported last year, compared with 56 in 1998. Two children have died of the disease.
This argues strongly against using leading edge science to decide timely public policy issues, particularly when that science hinges on one or two studies. By the time the science is corrected a decade or two later the damage to the public will already have been done. For this reason science will usually fail at providing us the answers we need when we need them most.
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