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Video: Expert: Shaky autism study risked global health

  1. Transcript of: Expert: Shaky autism study risked global health

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Back now at 8:22 with a new report in a leading medical journal that claims a link between autism and vaccines is nothing more than a, quote, "elaborate fraud." And they say it was designed by the very doctor whose study first raised the controversial idea more than a decade ago. NBC 's chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman , is here with details on this. Nancy , good morning to you.

    Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN reporting: Hey, Matt.

    LAUER: This is a strong and dramatic turn. An elaborate fraud.

    SNYDERMAN: It's a damning report.

    LAUER: That is what they called the research of Dr. Andrew Wakefield .

    SNYDERMAN: Correct.

    LAUER: What's your response to this?

    SNYDERMAN: Well, this is an -- the British medical journal is calling out -- The Lancet -- they're saying that he fabricated data, that this was fraud, that he willingly changed the details about the kids he reported on, and they really do not mince their words. In the United States , this would be analogous to the Journal of the American Medical Association calling out -- say the New England Journal of Medicine . This is a very big -- and this is a shock that's going to be heard around the world in the medical community.

    LAUER: We have sat down with Dr. Andrew Wakefield on several occasions.

    SNYDERMAN: Yes.

    LAUER: He has been defiant on every occasion...

    SNYDERMAN: Yes.

    LAUER: ...saying that he absolutely is being vilified here. Now he has released a new statement saying, "There was absolutely no fraud. In the absence of adequate data on vaccine safety they continue to go after the man. What government and pharma fear in the UK is the exposure of the fact that the UK government indemnified the manufacturer. They don't understand why I won't just go away. There is just too much at stake," end quote.

    SNYDERMAN: What is at stake is his medical license , which he lost in England .

    LAUER: In the UK .

    SNYDERMAN: He does not have a medical license in the United States . And he's lost his job in the United States . The indemnification of a government to this pharmaceutical company is important for people to understand because there are so many bogus lawsuits that there were -- we were on the verge in the world of not having any pharmaceutical companies making any vaccines. So the government stepped in to, frankly, save a vaccine supply line.

    LAUER: So real quickly, when he says in the absence of adequate data on vaccine safety, that -- you completely disagree with that.

    SNYDERMAN: Two big studies, one of 530,000 kids, one eight-point -- $8 million -- with 1.8 million kids all showing no link. And let me read to you from the British Medical Journal . They said, "Who perpetrated this fraud? Well, there's no doubt that it was Wakefield . Is it possible that he was wrong but not dishonest, that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project? No."

    LAUER: All right.

    SNYDERMAN: So that's from the journal. That's not editorial opinion, that's scientific opinion.

    LAUER: And as a result of the work of Andrew Wakefield and the publishing of his work in the Lancet , a lot of parents chose not to vaccinate their children.

    SNYDERMAN: And we have seen epidemics around the world.

    LAUER: It spiked.

    SNYDERMAN: And we should say that Brian Deer , a non-medical journalist who, outside the traditional medicine...

    LAUER: Working in the UK .

    SNYDERMAN: In the UK . One dogged journalist, really stayed on this story, and did what the medical establishment, pharmaceutical, government bodies did not, decided not to do.

    LAUER: And yet, for some reason, Nancy , I don't think it's the end of this story.

    SNYDERMAN: But you know what...

    LAUER: It doesn't seem to ever end.

    SNYDERMAN: ...now we can say vaccines are safe. Get vaccinated, we have to put this behind us.

Image: British doctor Andrew Wakefield, right, and his wife Carmel arriving at the General Medical Council (GMC) in central London
Shaun Curry  /  AFP - Getty Images file
British doctor Andrew Wakefield, right, and his wife Carmel arriving at the General Medical Council (GMC) in central London, Jan. 28, 2010.
updated 1/6/2011 12:56:35 PM ET 2011-01-06T17:56:35

The first study to link a childhood vaccine to autism was based on doctored information about the children involved, according to a new report on the widely discredited research.

The conclusions of the 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues were renounced by 10 of its 13 authors and later retracted by the medical journal Lancet, where it was published. Still, the suggestion the MMR shot was connected to autism spooked parents worldwide and immunization rates for measles, mumps and rubella have never fully recovered.

A new examination found, by comparing the reported diagnoses in the paper to hospital records, that Wakefield and colleagues altered facts about patients in their study.

The analysis, by British journalist Brian Deer, found that despite the claim in Wakefield's paper that the 12 children studied were normal until they had the MMR shot, five had previously documented developmental problems. Deer also found that all the cases were somehow misrepresented when he compared data from medical records and the children's parents.

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Called 'an elaborate fraud'
Wakefield defended his research in a statement released after the report. "There was absolutely no fraud," Wakefield, who is attending an international conference of doctors and scientists in Jamaica, said in the statement. "In the absence of adequate data on vaccine safety they continue to go after the man...What government and pharma fear in the UK is the exposure...of the fact that the UK government indemnified the manufacturer...They don't understand why I won't just go away. There is just too much at stake."

Wakefield now lives in the U.S. where he enjoys a vocal following including celebrity supporters like Jenny McCarthy.

TODAYMoms: Do you believe there's a link between autism and vaccines?

Deer's article was paid for by the Sunday Times of London and Britain's Channel 4 television network. It was published online Thursday in the medical journal, BMJ.

In an accompanying editorial, BMJ editor Fiona Godlee and colleagues called Wakefield's study "an elaborate fraud." They said Wakefield's work in other journals should be examined to see if it should be retracted.

Last May, Wakefield was stripped of his right to practice medicine in Britain. Many other published studies have shown no connection between the MMR vaccination and autism.

But measles has surged since Wakefield's paper was published and there are sporadic outbreaks in Europe and the U.S. In 2008, measles was deemed endemic in England and Wales.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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