In 1998, Dr Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet entitled "Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children." which attempted to draw a link between the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine and Autism. The extent of the medical community's response to the paper may be seen here.
The upshot of this was to cause immunisation rates to drop alarmingly and subsequently, the rate of measles infection to rise in the UK and around the world.
The study also gave rise to a protest group generally referred to as the Antivaxxers. In fact in the middle of last year, Dick Smith funded a full-page advertisement in The Australian to strongly assert the falsehood of Wakefield's study.
Yesterday, the General Medical Council (essentially The UK's medical registration authority) handed down its judgement on the Fitness to Practice hearing.
The Panel wish to make it clear that this case is not concerned with whether there is or might be any link between the MMR vaccination and autism. It has not speculated and has concerned itself only with the evidence before it and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from that evidence as an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.
The hearing was ONLY with respect to the practices undertaken by Wakefield and others in the operation of the research project. However, one could make the reasonable inference that if the execution of the research is discredited, then the research itself is in considerable doubt (never mind the inability of any other research team to replicate the findings).
Additionally, the study was based on just 12 children and in fact in 2004, the BBC reported that The Lancet admitted that the study should never have been published given the conflict-of-interest factors revealed in the following years.
Dr Wakefield was criticised for many invasive tests such as spinal taps which were carried out on children and were found to be against their best clinical interests. In addition, Dr Wakefield had neither ethical approval nor the relevant qualifications to conduct these tests.
Further, the panel report states at one point: "You caused Child 2 to undergo a programme of investigations for research purposed without having Ethics Committee approval for such research."
The BBC's report of the announcement includes videos of Wakefield responding to the verdict and also of him talking about paying for samples at a 1999 conference.
It is the payment for blood samples incident that probably caused the most ire. Some time prior to March 20th 1999, at his son's birthday party, Dr Wakefield arranged for blood samples to be taken from some of the guests; at the end of the party, those participating were given £5. The specific reason for the samples has not been discovered.
On March 20th, Dr Wakefield joked about the incident at a conference in California.
In the next session, commencing 7 April 2010, the Panel, under Rule 28, will hear evidence to be adduced and submissions from prosecution counsel then Dr Wakefield's own counsel as to whether the facts as found proved do amount to serious professional misconduct, and if so, what sanction, if any, should be imposed on his registration.
The National Autistic Society (NAS) is keenly aware of the concerns of parents surrounding suggested links between autism and the MMR vaccine. The charity is concerned that the GMC hearing, and surrounding media coverage, will create further confusion and make it even more difficult for parents to access appropriate medical advice for their children.
One can only assume that once the Panel delivers its sanctions at the April 7th session, the next step will be into the civil courts; this story has a long way to run yet.