Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s license to practice medicine in Britain was stripped away by British authorities earlier today, due to his “ethical lapses” in conducting research against measles vaccines.
Wakefield’s research claims, published in the distinguished medical journal Lancet in 1998, sparked a worldwide hysteria over the claimed link of Mumps-Measles-Rubella vaccine (MMR) to autism. The journal earlier withdrew the article when the research was exposed as faulty and reaching erroneous conclusions.
Lancet retracted the paper earlier this year.
Effects of Wakefield’s errors ripple across the globe, as children pay the price with measles rates up worldwide, especially in Africa, and in North America. Rob Breckenridge described the damage for the Calgary Herald:
However, Wakefield’s foul legacy is very much consequential. His latest comeuppance is hopefully a small step in undoing that legacy’s damage, but much damage has already been done.
Wakefield authored a now-discredited paper published in 1998 in The Lancet, which implied that the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine was linked to autism.
Numerous studies have shown no such link exists, but Wakefield’s research had the predictable effect of scaring people away from the MMR vaccine. Vaccination rates plummeted in the U.K., and the number of measles cases soared.
In 2008 in the U.K., there were almost 1,400 cases of measles compared with 56 the year Wakefield’s paper was published. In 2006, a 13-year-old boy died from measles — the first time in 14 years such a death had been recorded.
On top of the multiple studies rejecting the MMRautism link, The Lancet issued a formal retraction of Wakefield’s paper in February, citing his unethical and irresponsible conduct.
Once a disease like measles becomes rare, we tend to drop our guard, either forgetting how serious it is or assuming it can never come back. As we’ve seen in the U.K. it can come back with a vengeance. Unfortunately, it’s not only the U.K. where we’re learning that lesson.
This month, Alberta Health Services confirmed five cases of measles in the Calgary area. Given our lack of recent experience with measles — there was only one case provincewide in 2009 — AHS offered a primer on the disease.
Measles is extremely contagious, meaning one need not have close contact with an infected person. There is no cure, but vaccination can prevent it. There are still pockets of the province where vaccination rates are low and measles cases there have been higher.
Southwestern Alberta is one of those regions. Not only has measles made a comeback there — a 2000 outbreak closed a Lethbridge-area private school — but cases of mumps and whooping cough have been documented over the past two years.
In B.C., 87 measles cases have been confirmed this year. It’s believed many stem from infected out-of-country visitors at the Vancouver Olympics.
All cases involve people who were either not vaccinated, or only partially vaccinated. Eight cases were associated with a single household, where no one had been vaccinated.