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Published: Saturday, 2/6/2010

Fixing a medical miscue

IT TOOK too long, but The Lancet, an international medical journal that published an article that theorized a link between vaccination and autism in 1998, has finally retracted the research paper as a fraud.

Only time will tell whether the damage done by the study can be repaired. But the prestigious journal's repudiation of the study may lead to improved childhood immunizations against measles, mumps, and rubella.

Use of the three-in-one vaccination to protect against these diseases dropped significantly in the United States, Britain, and other parts of Europe after the autism research of British doctor Andrew Wakefield appeared in the journal. Dr. Wakefield's research - conducted on only 12 children - concluded that the combined vaccine was a primary cause of autism.

His hypothesis, now widely discredited, was that mixing the vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella into a single shot weakened the immune system and damaged the gut, which, in turn, led to the development of autism.

His assertions caused one of the biggest medical rows in a generation and prompted alarmed parents to stop immunizing their children.

Years of subsequent medical research disproved any vaccine-autism link, but not until a recent ruling by a disciplinary panel of Britain's General Medical Council did the world take note and The Lancet formally retract the study.

The committee said Dr. Wakefield had presented his research in an "irresponsible and dishonest" way and shown "callous disregard" for the children he studied.

The doctor continues to defend his work and accuses his critics of making "unfounded and unjust" allegations.

But it's safe to say that most in the medical community are happy to put the erroneous study behind them, in hopes that public perceptions adversely affecting pediatric patients will change.

Since the publication of the article, measles has made a return in the United States with an outbreak in 2008. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control had declared the country clear of the disease only eight years earlier.

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