TODAY   |  January 29, 2010

Panel slams autism doc as unethical

Jan. 29: A ruling by a British medical committee finds that Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who made headlines by suggesting a possible link between autism and childhood vaccines, acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly.” TODAY’s Matt Lauer reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> very much.

>>> it has been a controversy for years -- is there a link between autism and a common childhood vaccine? now one medical group has declared that dr. andrew wakefield , the doctor who first raised that possibility, carried out his research in an unethical and irresponsible manner, a finding he flatly denies. dr. andrew wakefield 's 1998 study suggesting the possibility of a link between autism and the mmr vaccine gave many parents around the world a reason to stop vaccinating, and parents of children with autism a possible answer to the devastating question of why.

>> they took their children to be vaccinated, and then something happened. their children fell apart.

>> reporter: but in the years following his publication in "the lancet," no large-scale study could reproduce exactly what dr. wakefield 's small study found, and to investigative reporter brian deird, that raised more questions than answers.

>> he was not an independent researcher.

>> reporter: he learned that wakefield was working as a paid man in a lawsuit brought by parents who fear their children were infected by the vaccine.

>> he was working for them two years before publishing this report.

>> reporter: no disputing that?

>> no disputing that.

>> reporter: deer says it was a conflict of interest that should have been disclosed in the story but never was. in an exclusive interview this summer, dr. wakefield admitted he was paid to conduct research on behalf of the plaintiffs, but said it was for a later study, one that never got published. you'll look at me in the eye and say that at the time you were doing your research, you were guilty of no conflict of interest whatsoever in either the research or the dealing with those children you studied?

>> no, not at all, and had i been, it would have been disclosed.

>> reporter: because of deer's reports, the general medical council , which licenses physicians in the uk, began investigating dr. wakefield , including looking at the unusual way he got children's blood samples for his research.

>> we needed some controlled blood from children who are entirely normal, so i asked my children and my wife said we have a birthday coming up, we have some medical friends, why don't we ask if they'd let their children do it, too. so seven or eight children did it.

>> i don't know why that sounds funny, but it does. a birthday party -- were they paid for the samples?

>> they were rewared.

>> how?

>> at the end of the party, necessary were given five pounds, at the time i guess about eight --

>> why isn't that paying them?

>> well, it's not saying up front by coercing them, you do this, we're going to give you money. it's saying at the end of it, here's a reward for helping. it's a different thing in ethical terms.

>> reporter: the british medical council disagreed. now, 2 1/2 years after they began their inquiry, found that wakefield 's actions were unethical and that he had acted dishonestly and irresponsibly. still, wakefield 's supporters are standing firm. and dr. wakefield vows to press on.

>> the allegations against me and against my colleagues are both unfounded and unjust. the science will continue in earnest.

>> the general medical council will decide over the summer if they will strip dr. wakefield of his license to practice. in the meantime, he continues his work here in the united states as the director of research for an autism treatment center in texas. it's 16 after the hour. once