LONDON — The doctor whose research linking autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella influenced millions of parents to refuse the shot for their children was banned Monday from practicing medicine in his native Britain.
Dr. Andrew Wakefield's 1998 study was discredited – but vaccination rates have never fully recovered and he continues to enjoy a vocal following, helped in the U.S. by endorsements from celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy
Wakefield was the first researcher to publish a peer-reviewed study suggesting a connection between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. Legions of parents abandoned the vaccine, leading to a resurgence of measles in Western countries where it had been mostly stamped out. There are outbreaks across Europe every year and sporadic outbreaks in the U.S.
"That is Andrew Wakefield's legacy," said Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "The hospitalizations and deaths of children from measles who could have easily avoided the disease."
Wakefield's discredited theories had a tremendous impact in the U.S., Offit said, adding: "He gave heft to the notion that vaccines in general cause autism."
In Britain, Wakefield's research led to a huge decline in the number of children receiving the MMR vaccine: from 95 percent in 1995 – enough to prevent measles outbreaks – to 50 percent in parts of London in the early 2000s. Rates have begun to recover, though not enough to prevent outbreaks. In 2006, a 13-year-old boy became the first person to die from measles in Britain in 14 years.
"The false suggestion of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine has done untold damage to the UK vaccination program," said Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. "Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that it is safe."
On Monday, Britain's General Medical Council, which licenses and oversees doctors, found Wakefield guilty of serious professional misconduct and stripped him of the right to practice medicine in the U.K. Wakefield said he plans to appeal the ruling, which takes effect within 28 days.
The council was acting on a finding in January that Wakefield and two other doctors showed a "callous disregard" for the children in their study, published in 1998 in the medical journal Lancet. The medical body said Wakefield took blood samples from children at his son's birthday party, paying them 5 pounds (about $7.20) each and later joked about the incident.
The study has since been widely rejected. From 1998-2004, studies in journals including the Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Pediatrics and BMJ published papers showing no link between autism and the measles vaccine.
Wakefield moved to the U.S. in 2004 and set up an autism research center in Austin, Texas, where he gained a wide following despite being unlicensed as a doctor there and facing skepticism from the medical community. He quit earlier this year.
Offit said he doubted Britain's decision to strip the 53-year-old Wakefield of his medical license would convince many parents that vaccines are safe.
"He's become almost like a Christ-like figure and it doesn't matter that science has proven him wrong," Offit said. "He is a hero for parents who think no one else is listening to them."
Wakefield told The Associated Press Monday's decision was a sad day for British medicine. "None of this alters the fact that vaccines can cause autism," he said.
"These parents are not going away; the children are not going to go away and I most certainly am not going away," he said on NBC's "Today Show."
Wakefield claimed the U.S. government has been settling cases of vaccine-induced autism since 1991.
However, two rulings by a special branch of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in March and last year found no link between vaccines and autism. More than 5,500 claims have been filed by families seeking compensation for children they claim were hurt by the vaccine.
Wakefield has won support from parents suspicious of vaccines, including Hollywood celebrities.
McCarthy, who has an autistic son, issued a statement in February with then boyfriend Carrey asserting Wakefield was "being vilified through a well-orchestrated smear campaign."
"It is our most sincere belief that Dr. Wakefield and parents of children with autism around the world are being subjected to a remarkable media campaign engineered by vaccine manufacturers," the actors said.
McCarthy, whose best-seller "Louder Than Words" details her search for treatments for her son Evan, wrote the foreword for a new book by Wakefield about autism and vaccines.
In Monday's ruling, the medical council said Wakefield abused his position as a doctor and "brought the medical profession into disrepute."
At the time of his study, Wakefield was working as a gastroenterologist at London's Royal Free Hospital and did not have approval for the research. The study suggested autistic children had a bowel disease and raised the possibility of a link between autism and vaccines. He had also been paid to advise lawyers representing parents who believed their children had been hurt by the MMR vaccine.
Ten of the study's authors later renounced its conclusions and it was retracted by the Lancet in February.
At least a dozen British medical associations, including the Royal College of Physicians, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust have issued statements verifying the safety of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.
This verdict is not about (the measles) vaccine," said Adam Finn, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Bristol Medical School. "We all now know that the vaccine is remarkably safe and enormously effective... We badly need to put this right for the sake of our own children and children worldwide."
Associated Press Writer Kelley Shannon contributed to this report from Austin, Texas.
Ruling on Wakefield, http://www.gmc-uk.org/Wakefield_SPM_and_SANCTION.pdf_32595267.pdf