Fall of Andrew Wakefield, ‘dishonest’ doctor who started MMR scare
David Rose, Health Correspondent
The doctor who sparked a worldwide panic over the MMR vaccine could be struck off after being found guilty yesterday of a series of misconduct charges related to his “unethical” research.
Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 claimed an unfounded link between the vaccination and autism, “showed a callous disregard” for the suffering of children, subjecting them to unnecessary, invasive tests, a hearing found.
The General Medical Council (GMC) ruled that he abused his position of trust as he researched a possible link between the MMR vaccine, bowel disease and autism in children.
It found that Wakefield and two colleagues acted dishonestly and irresponsibly in carrying out research on children against their best interests and without official permission.
The GMC ruled that Wakefield, who was working at the Royal Free Hospital in London as a gastroenterologist at the time, did not have the ethical approval or qualifications to oversee the study, which involved children undergoing colonoscopies, lumbar punctures, barium meals and brain scans.
He was also found to have brought the medical profession into disrepute after taking blood samples from youngsters at his son's birthday party in return for payments of £5 and failing to disclose vital conflicts of interest.
He received £50,000 to carry out the research on behalf of solicitors acting for parents who believed that their children had been harmed by MMR, but could not account for how at least half this money had been spent.
He also did not declare any conflict of interest to The Lancet
medical journal, which published the research.
The GMC found the charges against Wakefield, and the professors John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch were “sufficient to amount to serious professional misconduct”.
But as he delivered the verdicts, Dr Surendra Kumar, the panel’s chairman, was repeatedly heckled by distraught parents who support Wakefield and his former colleagues. One woman shouted: "These doctors have not failed our children. You are outrageous." She called the panel of experts "b******s" and accused the GMC of being a "kangaroo court". All three doctors deny any wrongdoing.
The study prompted a massive drop in the number of children being vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella. Uptake of the MMR vaccine was 91 per cent before 1998, but by 2003 this had fallen to 79 per cent. In 2008 there were nearly 1,400 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales — compared with 57 in 1997 — and nearly a dozen deaths had been officially linked to the illness.
Subsequent studies involving millions of children found no evidence of a link between MMR and autism.
The hearing sat for 148 days over a two-and-a-half year period, at a cost to the GMC, funded by doctors, of more than £1 million. It is the longest running medical misconduct case in the Council’s 147 year history.
Before yesterday’s hearing, 12 organisations, including the Medical Research Council, the British Medical Association and Faculty of Public Health, released a joint statement reaffirming their confidence in the jab.
“The undersigned believe that the MMR triple vaccine protects the health of children,” they said. “A large body of scientific evidence shows no link between the vaccine and autism.”
Wakefield was not present to hear the verdicts being read out but appeared to make a statement later, saying he was dismayed at the panel’s decision.
“I am extremely disappointed by the outcome of today’s proceedings,” he said.
“The allegations against me and my colleagues are unfounded and unjust and I invite anyone to examine the contents of these proceedings and come to their own conclusions.”