By Scott Hensley
It took 12 years, but the medical journal the Lancet has retracted once and for all a controversial paper that drew a link between vaccines and autism and helped fuel a backlash against immunization of children.
A 1998 Lancet paper reported on a dozen kids who developed various behavioral and intestinal problems. Eight of them had been vaccinated with a combination shot against measles, mumps and rubella.
Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the lead investigator, brought international attention to the paper by saying he thought the MMR vaccinations were to blame. The assertions chipped away at confidence in vaccination.
It later emerged that Wakefield had been taking money from a lawyer suing vaccine makers. The results of his study couldn't be replicated. Most of Wakefield's co-authors later retracted the paper's interpretation of the data. The Lancet backed away from the paper in 2004, but defended its publication on the grounds it helped "raise new ideas."
In the retraction today, the Lancet editors wrote that it became clear parts of the paper are "incorrect."
We talked with Dr. Richard Horton, editor in chief of the Lancet, who defended the journal's handling of the paper and the vaccine controversy. "We've always said there was no link," he said. "The original paper doesn't prove a link."
He acknowledged that Wakefield had conducted "pretty much a one-man campaign" against vaccination and that subsequent investigations had shown he had a "very, very significant motivation to prove the link" between autism and MMR.
So what is Lancet doing to prevent this from happening again? Horton said a paper like this one would be put in "a high-risk category" and receive much closer scrutiny before publication because of the potential to cause "public health harm."
A decade ago, Horton said, Lancet didn't necessarily consider the effect wider media pickup of a paper published in a medical journal could have. Now, he said, the idea that a study like Wakefield's can be confined to debate solely in the scientific arena is "not sustainable."
Update: What was missing from the Lancet retraction? Matthew Herper at Forbes writes it should have been comprehensible to laypeople and clearer in describing the problems with the paper. He offers a rewrite.