LONDON (Reuters) - The Lancet medical journal formally retracted a paper on Tuesday that caused a 12-year international battle over links between the three-in-one childhood MMR vaccine and autism.
The paper, published in 1998 and written by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, suggested the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shot might be linked to autism and bowel disease.
His assertion, since widely discredited, caused one of the biggest medical rows in a generation and led to a steep drop in the number of vaccinations in the United States, Britain and other parts of Europe, prompting a rise in cases of measles.
“It has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield ... are incorrect,” the internationally renowned scientific journal said in a statement.
A disciplinary panel of Britain’s General Medical Council (GMC) ruled last week that Wakefield had presented his research in an “irresponsible and dishonest” way and shown a “callous disregard” for the suffering of the children he studied.
It also ruled he had brought the medical profession “into disrepute.”
Adam Finn, professor of pediatrics at Bristol University, welcomed the Lancet’s move but said it had been too long coming.
“This is not before time. Let’s hope this will do something to re-establish the good reputation of this excellent vaccine,” he said in a statement to reporters.
A rise in parents’ refusal to have their children vaccinated because of fears of links to autism has caused a rise in measles cases in the United States and parts of Europe in recent years.
Data released last February for England and Wales showed a rise in measles cases of more than 70 percent in 2008 from the previous year, mostly due to unvaccinated children.
Vaccination rates are now recovering and Wakefield’s research has been discredited worldwide.
The Lancet said that following the GMC ruling, it was now clear that certain parts of Wakefield’s paper were wrong.
It highlighted claims in the original paper that children investigated for the study “consecutively referred” and that investigations were “approved” by the local ethics committee, and said these had now been “proven to be false.”
“Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record,” it said in a statement.
Wakefield, who now lives and works in the United States, has always defended his work and accused those who argued against him of making “unfounded and unjust” allegations.
The GMC is now considering whether Wakefield is guilty of serious professional misconduct, which could lead to him being struck off Britain’s medical register.
Editing by Janet Lawrence