Earlier this month, a prestigious medical journal disavowed an article it published more than a decade ago linking autism in children to a common childhood vaccine. The original article raised widespread concern about the safety of the vaccine, prompting many parents worldwide to stop vaccinating their children.
In 1998, a high-profile article published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, announced a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, used against measles, mumps and rubella.
There had been no established cause shown for autism, a disorder that affects a youngster's social skills and ability to interact with the outside world.
In the original paper, British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield described a small sample of 12 children, eight of whom showed evidence of autism shortly after receiving the vaccine.
However, subsequent investigations by British regulators led to charges that Dr. Wakefield falsified data and was paid by the parents of autistic children.
In 2004, as scrutiny and criticism of the study intensified, ten of 13 co-authors of the 1998 autism article publicly disassociated themselves from from it. A telephone call made to Wakefield asking him to comment on the Lancet retraction was not returned.
Over the past decade, as the vaccine-autism link gained traction among some groups, the scientific community has been unable to confirm the connection.
Paul Offit, a vaccine researcher at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, says at least 12 studies have been done worldwide concluding repeatedly that the MMR vaccine does not cause autism. "We've reached the many hundreds of thousands mark of children who did or didn't receive MMR to see whether risk of autism was greater in the vaccinated group and it wasn't; consistently, reproducibly, redundantly. I think that the problem is there are people who simply don't believe the science. They hold on to this notion that MMR causes autism or that vaccines cause autism much as one holds a religious belief," he said.
Offit says a number of other studies have been done searching for a biological cause for autism. "There are some very interesting studies about the genetics, about the kinds of proteins that those genes make, about how one brain cell communicates with another based on those proteins. It's all very interesting. You never hear about it because I think that the anti-vaccine forces have taken this story hostage, much to the detriment of children with autism," he said.
Numerous vaccination opponents contacted for this report either didn't return telephone calls or declined to be interviewed.
Since the Wakefield paper, experts say there's been a rise in the number of measles cases worldwide.
In Great Britain, there were 56 cases in 1998. The number of cases rose to 1,300 in 2008, including one death. And in the United States, there have been pockets of increased measles infections.
University Of Texas psychologist Katherine Loveland, who specializes in autism, thinks the retraction by The Lancet will reassure parents of small children. "I would definitely vaccinate my child. And the reason is I know that the risk from getting those childhood diseases, which we tend to forget can be killers, the risk of them is so much higher than any hypothetical risk of an increased chance of getting autism," she said.
Vaccination proponents say they are hopeful that The Lancet's retraction of the 1998 autism article will, at the very least, help restore public confidence in the safety of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.