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Health officials in the United Kingdom are urging parents to get their children vaccinated against measles, which is resurging due in no small measure to vaccine fears caused by since discredited research linking the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) shot to autism.
With a massive outbreak in Wales now at some 1000 cases, UK health officials have announced a national “catch-up” immunization program to immunize 1 million children and adolescents with MMR. In particular, the government is reaching out to parents of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated children age 10-16 years old, many of whom were not immunized with MMR after a 1998 published “study” implied the vaccine may cause autism. The paper by Andrew Jeremy Wakefield, a former surgeon and medical researcher in the UK, was published in the respected medical journal The Lancet -- which took the highly unusual step of retracting the article in 2010.(1)
“It should have never been published -- nothing was ever studied,” says Paul Offit, MD, vaccine researcher and infectious disease chief at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. “It was simply a case series, which said there were children who had received the MMR vaccine and within a month had been noticed to have symptoms of autism. That's not a study. At best, you can say that British group raised a hypothesis, but they didn't test the hypothesis. If you have an outlandish hypothesis — in this case of vaccine causing autism — I think that in order to be published you should have far more supportive data. There were no data. “
Frequently interviewed in Hospital Infection Control & Prevention, Offit has been a voice of reason against the growing anti-vaccine movement in the U.S. and globally -- and he has the hate mail to prove it. The Lancet article and the ensuing fears it generated appear to have decreased immunization rates against vaccine preventable diseases and contributed to outbreaks that have included deaths.
“The old line from Carl Sagan is that ‘extraordinary claims should be matched by extraordinary evidence,’" Offit says. “This [retracted article] was an extraordinary claim with no evidence. All it did was frighten people. When studies were done — when you actually compare children who received or didn't receive MMR and see that the risk of autism was the same in both groups — then you had your answer.”
But by then the damage had been done, and unvaccinated children would eventually degrade herd immunity and fuel the kind of measles outbreaks now occurring in the UK. Similar outbreaks and imported cases of vaccine-preventable diseases have hit non-vaccinated populations in the U.S., causing chaos in hospitals after unsuspected cases are admitted. A paper published last year by French researchers found that “measles is being transmitted from patients to health care workers (HCWs) and from HCWs to patients and colleagues.”(2) They stressed the need for all health care workers to be immunized against measles.
1. Wakefield AJ, et al. RETRACTED: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 1998; 351:637-641.
2. Botelho-Nevers E, et al. Nosocomial transmission of measles: an updated review. Vaccine. 2012 Jun 8;30(27):3996-4001.