New Evidence on MMR/autism link

John Scott reports on research from the New York University School of Medicine and the testimony of one of the government?s own scientific officers on the association between the measles virus and a subset of autistic children - and wonders why the General Medical Council is continuing to hound Dr Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who first suggested that this link might exist.

New research from New York University School of Medicine has added further support for the earlier findings of British gastro-enterologist Andrew Wakefield.

The original research, reported in The Lancet in 1998, had detected traces of the measles virus in the guts of 12 children with autism. This latest study, which involved 275 children with both bowel disease and regressive autism, found signs of the strain of measles virus that is used in the MMR vaccine in 85% of 82 children who had tissue biopsies taken from their gut.

MMR/measles association
The new study does not demonstrate that the measles virus causes autism, or even that it causes bowel disease, but it does reinforce the fact that there is a strong association between the MMR vaccine and autistic children with bowel disease.

The research was presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Montreal in May 2006.

DOH rejection
The Department of Health has dismissed these latest findings, insisting that the study has no validity because control groups were not used. The official line is still, therefore, that ‘...there remains no convincing epidemiological or virological evidence for MMR playing a part in causing autism.’

Criticism from within
However, shortly before this latest study was released, one of the British Government's own former medical officers spoke out about what he believes to be the Government's ‘utterly inexplicable complacency’ over the MMR triple vaccine for children.

Dr Peter Fletcher has had a distinguished 40-year career in science and medicine in Britain, Europe and the US and was Chief Scientific Officer at the Department of Health, where he was responsible for deciding whether medicines are safe.

In the course of fulfilling a new role as an expert witness for parents' lawyers, Dr Fletcher has received and studied thousands of documents which he believes the public has a right to see. However, this material may never come to light unless parents can force the government to restore legal aid, which was terminated in 2003 for parents of allegedly vaccine-damaged children - ‘a monstrous injustice’.

Mounting evidence
There is now far too much evidence to ignore, according to Dr Fletcher: ‘Clinical and scientific data... that the live measles virus in MMR can cause brain, gut and immune system damage in a subset of vulnerable children.’ However, the government health authorities appear determined to ignore this, perhaps because ‘there are very powerful people in positions of great authority in Britain and elsewhere who have staked their reputations and careers on the safety of MMR and they are willing to do almost anything to protect themselves’.

Concerns raised in 2001
Dr Fletcher first raised concerns about MMR in 2001, maintaining that safety trials before the vaccine's introduction in this country were inadequate. Now he says that, if it is proven that the vaccine does cause autism, ‘...the refusal of the government to evaluate the risks properly will make this one of the greatest scandals in medical history’.

The interview with Dr Fletcher was published in the Mail on Sunday and reported online, along with readers' comments - click here to read.

Protecting their backs
Anyone who doubts the assertion that there are individuals in positions of great authority who will do almost anything to protect their own interests in respect of the MMR vaccine, might like to consider the fact that the General Medical Council has been investigating Dr Wakefield for the past two years and has recently announced that it intends to bring charges against him in respect of his original research.

GMC lawyers are apparently formulating a case involving four charges: that Dr Wakefield published inadequately founded research, failed to obtain ethical committee approval for the work, obtained funding for it improperly and subjected children to ‘unnecessary and invasive investigations’. These charges are expected to be presented in the autumn of 2006, with a public hearing expected in 2007.

Of course, there have been and continue to be many other studies that could be accused of the same failings and much worse, but which are never even investigated, so why, one wonders, is the GMC so intent on pursuing Dr Wakefield? Could it be that the General Medical Council are hoping that it will make the whole MMR controversy go away if it can discredit Dr Wakefield?

First published in 2006

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