An infamous 1998 study that ignited a worldwide scare over vaccines and autism
— and led millions of parents to delay or decline potentitally lifesaving shots for their children — was "an elaborate fraud," according to a scathing three-part investigation in the British medical journal BMJ
The study has long since been debunked and dismissed by the scientific community, which points to 14 independent studies that have failed to find any link between vaccines and autism.
Last year, The Lancet issued a formal retraction. British medical authorities last year also found the study's lead author, Andrew Wakefield, guilty of serious professional misconduct, stripping him of his ability to practice medicine in England.
Now, the BMJ reports that Wakefield, who was paid more than $675,000 by a lawyer hoping to sue vaccine makers, was not just unethical — he falsified data in the study, which suggested that children developed autism after getting a shot against measles, mumps and rubella.
In fact, the children's medical records show that some clearly had symptoms of developmental problems long before getting their shots, BMJ says. Several had no autism diagnosis at all. Wakefield could not be reached by USA TODAY.
Becky Estepp, of the advocacy group Talk About Curing Autism, says the investigation is unlikely to sway vaccine critics. "I think it will make both sides dig in even further," she says.
Few studies have had such far-reaching and harmful effects, especially after being so thoroughly discredited, says William Schaffner, an infectious-disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Vaccination rates in England plummeted after Wakefield's press conference to promote his study. Measles outbreaks in the United Kingdom and Ireland hospitalized hundreds of people and killed four children, says Paul Offit, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Nearly 40% of American parents also have declined or delayed a vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many parents now have a vague distrust of vaccines — with little to no memory of diseases that terrified their grandparents, Schaffner says.
Offit says it may take years to rebuild trust in vaccines. "It's very hard to unscare people. You can do study after study, but people are far more compelled by their fears than by their reason."