Scientist: Autism Paper Had Catastrophic Effects

The prestigious British medical journal Lancet took a rare step this week: It retracted a 1998 paper that sparked a firestorm about potential links between vaccines and autism. That paper has been a bane to Dr. Paul Offit, co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine and chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. Offit tells host Guy Raz why he thinks the paper was a disaster for parents seeking answers about autism.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Britain's best-known medical journal the Lancet issued a rare public retraction this past week of a paper it published back in 1998 that linked autism to the MMR vaccine.

Children in Britain, the U.S. and many other Western countries are usually given the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine at age 1. But when three researchers, led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, published their report linking that vaccine to autism in 1998, it unleashed an anti-vaccine movement in the U.S. and in Britain that had long been dormant.

Late last month, an official British medical investigation found Wakefield's methods, quote, "dishonest and irresponsible." Among other things, the panel found he handpicked the children used in the study, but Wakefield dismissed the findings.

Dr. ANDREW WAKEFIELD: The allegations against me and against my colleagues are both unfounded and unjust. I repeat unfounded and unjust.

RAZ: One of the most passionate advocates for childhood vaccinations is Dr. Paul Offit. He's the co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine and the head of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia.

Paul Offit, welcome to the program.

Dr. PAUL OFFIT (Co-inventor, Rotavirus Vaccine; Chief of Infectious Diseases, Children's Hospital, Philadelphia): Thank you.

RAZ: How important was Dr. Wakefield's study linking autism to the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella to kick starting the anti-vaccine movement here in the United States?

Dr. OFFIT: Well, I would say the anti-vaccine movement really started in the early 1980s with a television show called "DPT Vaccine Roulette" that aired initially on a local D.C. affiliate and then was on the "Today Show" and took off. I think that was the birth of the modern American anti-vaccine movement, which largely floundered after that. I think it sort of lost steam. But that was certainly regenerated when, in 1998, Dr. Wakefield and his colleagues published that paper in Lancet.

RAZ: And what was the result of that paper's publication?

Dr. OFFIT: It set off a firestorm. It really gave birth to the notion that vaccines, I mean, thought to be one of medicine's greatest life-saving products, could in fact cause this chronic, debilitating neurological disease.

RAZ: Parents panicked. I mean, many parents stopped giving their children this vaccine.

Dr. OFFIT: Not just this vaccine but other vaccines, as well. I think as a consequence of that papers being published, we had a measles epidemic in 2008 that was bigger than anything we'd seen in more than a decade. There were a little over 130 cases of measles, with some children being hospitalized. But in the United Kingdom and Ireland, it was far worse. There were hundreds of children who were hospitalized, and four children died. I mean, died of the false notion that the MMR vaccine could cause autism.

RAZ: Now his paper in Lancet didn't confirm a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, but it strongly suggested that there could be a link. When it first came out in 1998, were you intrigued at all, I mean, or were you skeptical right away?

Dr. OFFIT: Oh, I think anybody that saw that paper saw it as a very thin, flimsy piece of evidence. I mean, it was not a study at all. All it was, was a report of 12 children, eight of whom had been diagnosed with autism within a month of receiving the MMR vaccine, and it was Dr. Wakefield's contention that these children also had intestinal inflammation.

It should have never been allowed to be published. I mean, we really shouldn't be able to publish hypotheses. I could, for example, argue that I think peanut butter sandwiches cause leukemia. I'm sure I can find five children with leukemia who had eaten peanut butter sandwiches in the last month. I would like to think that wouldn't get published. I'd like to believe that the editor would come back to me and say, you know, you have to look at tens of thousands of children who either do or don't eat peanut butter sandwiches to see whether or not the instance of leukemia is greater in the peanut-butter-sandwich-eating group.

RAZ: Why do you think so many parents, even parents who do immunize their children, believe some of these findings?

Dr. OFFIT: The notion that this could be a cause was seductive. Certainly, the medicine had little to offer to counter that. All that medicine could say was that it's not this. And I think for parents who are looking for an answer - and in this case, it was an easy answer - it was very seductive, even though it was wrong.

RAZ: Dr. Offit, this is no news to you, but you are actually a lightening rod for those who oppose or who are anti-vaccine. You've actually received death threats from people who believe you are profiting from what they call the vaccine industry.

Dr. OFFIT: I don't work for the pharmaceutical industry. I am an employee of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. And the reason that I went into pediatrics, or the reason that I had children, or the reason that I worked on a vaccine that can save children's lives is I feel a deep and abiding love of children. It's why I do what I do.

You know, in a better world, and it's clearly a world in which we don't live, it wouldn't be about me any more than it would be about Andrew Wakefield. It would simply be about the science. I mean, it's unfortunate that we feel the need to attach personalities to these hypotheses. It's perfectly reasonable to have the hypothesis that MMR caused autism.

You can argue my child was fine from a parent standpoint, then they got a vaccine, then they weren't fine anymore. The good news is that that's a testable hypothesis, and it has been tested. And you'd like to believe that once, and in this case tens of millions of dollars have been spent trying to address these parents' concerns, that the parents would believe the science. But instead it sort of devolves, I think unfortunately, into this kind of battle of personalities.

I mean, I'll give you an example. My father sold men's shirts for a living, and he would you know, he would he ran a sales force of men that sold shirts, and he would occasionally have these sales meetings, and he would say them, you know, they're not buying the shirt because they like the shirt. They're buying the shirt because they like you.

And I think that's sort of what drove me into science. I like that it was a meritocracy. And it was really about your data, not about you. But obviously it is, at some level, about the salesman.

RAZ: That's Dr. Paul Offit. He's a professor of vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the book "Autism's False Prophets."

Paul Offit, thank you so much.

Dr. OFFIT: Thank you, Guy.

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