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When Science Goes Bad

January 12, 2011 ·

In an effort to spare children from a dreaded disorder, parents exposed those children to other illnesses that had been considered remnants of the past.

Thirteen years ago, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a study claiming that the childhood vaccination for measles/mumps/rubella was linked to autism. Last week, the medical journal BMJ began a three part series discrediting this linkage.

Writing in the Baltimore Sun, Adil E. Shamoo and Bonnie Bricker note the study's weakness. The lesson one draws from their argument is that scientific studies must be more rigorous. They write,

The comprehensive new report from the editors of the British Medical Journal flatly accused Dr. Wakefield of using fraudulent data to "prove" his theory. Yet health decisions were based on research conducted with this tiny sample, which by research standards is a clearly flawed practice. Regardless of the strength of the findings or their original publication in a prestigious medical journal, there is no way one can control all of the variables in just 12 subjects.

Beyond the rigors of the study, today, BMJ focused on another problem: money.

Wakefield had been engaged by a lawyer named Richard Barr, who hoped to bring a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. Barr ... acted for an anti-vaccine group, JABS. And, through this connection, the man nowadays popularly dubbed the “MMR doctor” had found a supply of research patients for Walker-Smith.

Just like oil and water, medicine and money shouldn't mix. But the medical industry, like politics, has become tainted with money. It also suffers from the revolving door problem seen in politics as well where the line between industry and science is increasingly blurred.

Regulating issues where public safety is paramount, such as medical studies, is a prime example of the role government should play in our lives. The Wakefield case illustrates the danger of having industry largely regulate itself.

Shamoo and Bricker conclude by saying,

The irony of the Wakefield case is that in an effort to spare their children from a dreaded disorder, parents exposed those children to other horrendous childhood illnesses that had been considered remnants of the past.

It should be the role of regulators, backed by independent scientists, to keep this from happening again.


Erik Leaver
Communications Manager