In a nutshell: Recanting well and good, but damage already done

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IN 2007, an epidemic of mumps began in the Maritimes, linked to a virus originating in Britain. This was surprising, because hardly anybody gets the mumps anymore. In fact, I may have been the last recorded natural case of mumps in the industrialized world, being stricken by the disease as I was in the 1950s.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/02/2010 (4681 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

IN 2007, an epidemic of mumps began in the Maritimes, linked to a virus originating in Britain. This was surprising, because hardly anybody gets the mumps anymore. In fact, I may have been the last recorded natural case of mumps in the industrialized world, being stricken by the disease as I was in the 1950s.

Fortunately — there are people who may differ on the choice of that word — I suffered neither the sterility nor death that the mumps can sometimes cause, and only a few people have suffered from mumps since because of the availability of a vaccine against childhood diseases such as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine — that offers immunity from these former plagues.

At least, only a few people would have suffered from it were it not for an egregiously wrong and harmful medical study published in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet 12 years ago. The paper, written by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and a train of lesser colleagues, purported to link the MMR vaccine to autism, which was then and still is on the rise in Western societies.

The sparked an international public hysteria that saw parents in Britain, Europe and North America refusing to vaccinate their children against MMR for fear of infecting them with autism. The result was a resurgence in these ancient diseases, which we had been in a position to eradicate, but no decline in the rate of autism as it developed among our children. In this context, it was the worst of all possible worlds.

In its most recent issue, The Lancet recants. After Britain’s General Medical Council had reviewed Wakefield’s research and found that several elements were false and that he had shown a "callous disregard" for the children used in his study, the journal repudiated him. So, too, did of 10 of the researchers who co-authored the article with Wakefield.

Unfortunately, this is like locking the ward door after the patient has bolted. Wakefield’s misinformation is deeply rooted now in what might be called the counter-culture of modern medical enlightenment. Parents will continue to be happily deluded, children will continue to get sick and even die for want of the MMR vaccine, and autism will still remain a mystery.

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