LONDON – The doctor behind a controversial study linking a common children's vaccine to autism and bowel disease faced a hearing into allegations of serious professional misconduct Monday.
Britain's General Medical Council is examining claims that Dr. Andrew Wakefield failed to disclose his links to autism litigators, conducted the study without proper ethical approval, and even took blood samples from children at a birthday party. Wakefield denies any misconduct.
Wakefield's study, published in the medical journal The Lancet in 1998, suggested that the triple measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, which is administered throughout the world, could put children at risk of autism or bowel disease. The finding, and the attendant media coverage, led to many parents refusing to vaccinate their children.
But the paper was soon discredited, and 10 of the study's 13 authors have since renounced its conclusions. The Lancet also said it should not have published the study, criticizing the authors for not revealing what it characterized as a "fatal conflict of interest." Three of the paper's authors -- Wakefield, along with fellow researchers John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch -- are being investigated by the GMC.
Numerous studies have concluded that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism or bowel disease, and the vast majority of the medical establishment supports the vaccine's use.
"It is one of the safest, best-studied vaccines," said Dr. Philip Minor, head of virology at Britain's National Institutes of Biological Standards and Control. Doctors warn that the MMR controversy has led many parents to underestimate the dangers of the diseases. Last April, for the first time in more than a decade, a 13-year-old boy died from measles.
Wakefield stands accused of conducting operations on children -- including colonoscopies and lumbar punctures -- which were arguably unnecessary, of coordinating his research with lawyers for autism patients, and of taking blood from children at a birthday party to use for research purposes in return for a monetary payment.
The council said Wakefield could lose the ability to practice in Britain if the allegations are proven. The hearings are expected to last through October.
The number of measles cases surged as the proportion of vaccinated children in Britain fell below 80 percent, leading researchers to warn that the disease -- once all but wiped out -- could become endemic in Britain.
Mounting concern over the disease even prompted the intervention by then Prime Minister Tony Blair, who spearheaded a campaign to reassure concerned parents. Vaccination rates have since rebounded, but not to a level sufficient to protect the entire population from the diseases.