U.K. journal rejects study linking autism to vaccine

Wesley Sykes, 9, watches television on the couch of the family's home in Richmond, Va., June 20, 2005. Wesley's mother, the Rev. Lisa Sykes, pastor of Richmond's Christ United Methodist Church, believes that Wesley developed autism from a mercury-based preservative she received in a shot during pregnancy and he received in childhood vaccines. (Lisa Billings/AP)

February 2, 2010 5:21:17 PM PST
For a dozen years, parents have worried about the possible link between childhood vaccinations and autism, perhaps needlessly. "The Lancet," a major British medical journal is retracting a landmark study because it was badly flawed.

The study had a huge impact on immunization rates not only in the United States but especially in the U.K. For example, vaccinations in the U.K. plunged to less than 80 percent in 2003 after the study. Tuesday's retraction completely strips the study of its scientific claims.

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield and his team, suggested the combined measles, mumps and rubella shot (MMR) might be linked to autism and bowel disease. But, The Lancet has since discovered that there were several elements of the paper that were incorrect.

The journal says Wakefield carried out unnecessary tests on children and did not disclose that he was involved in legal claims against the vaccine makers.

The California Autism Foundation issued a statement saying, "We hope this retraction removes another obstacle from parents, so they can better focus on how to seek out the best services and long-term care for their autistic children."

Diana Conti is with PARCA, a group helping people with developmental disabilities. She says that despite the retraction, she still believes there may be a link.

"I don't think pulling this study means that that's definitive proof that there's no link between vaccinations and autism," she says.

When the paper came out in 1998, many parents concerned about the possible health risks refused the vaccine.

Conti says, "It puts parents in a terrible position where they are going to have to use their own best judgment,"

Joanna Jaeger has a son with autism. She believes there are genetic and environmental links to autism.

"Household chemicals and perfumes, and there is a long, long list of things that we are exposed to in the past 20, 30, 40 years that is greatly increased," she says.

Jaeger says Tuesday's retraction should encourage other researchers to find out why autism is still on the rise.

"It's discouraging," she says. "That after so many years, there's still not very much solid scientific research."

The Lancet's disclosure leaves parents with even more unanswered questions. The only thing both sides of the issues agree upon is that autism, for some unknown reason, is still on the rise.