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Redirect autism research

For more than a decade, a debate has raged whether there is a connection between autism and the three-in-one measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, commonly known as the MMR.

The research of British laboratory researcher Dr. Andrew Wakefield, which was published in the medical journal Lancet in February 1998, blamed the MMR vaccine for the onset of inflammatory bowel disease and "regressive autism." Behavioral issues surfaced in children within two weeks of undergoing the combined vaccine, according to Wakefield's findings. This study of just 12 children — and a similarly sized control group — prompted many parents in the United Kingdom and the United States to question the safety of the vaccine. Wakefield, in a 1998 press conference, called for a boycott of the triple MMR.

In successive years, researchers were unable to replicate Wakefield's research. In 2004, Lancet editor Richard Horton deemed the article "fatally flawed" and apologized for publishing it. Ten of the 13 journal article authors retracted their previous claims of a possible autism-MMR link after London's Sunday Times revealed that Wakefield had been compensated by an attorney who was contemplating a class-action lawsuit against drug companies that manufacture the MMR vaccine. It was also reported that the control group for Wakefield's research was composed of children attending his son's birthday party.

Although the research had been largely discredited at that point, the genie was out of the bottle. An intense anti-vaccination movement ensued, resulting in significant drops in vaccination rates in Britain and the United States, as well as a resurgence of measles. Wakefield, whose license to practice medicine in Britain may be revoked, maintains he has done nothing wrong. He is practicing medicine in Texas.

Many lessons should be gleaned from this ordeal. A few years after it was published, Wakefield's research started to unravel. Seemingly, Lancet would have more carefully vetted Wakefield's article before it was published. The co-authors should have exercised greater diligence before attaching their names and reputations to Wakefield's research.

No one can blame parents of children with autism for wanting further explanations as to why and how it occurs. No legitimate science has established a link between autism and vaccines, nor has a connection been proven between autism and the vaccine preservative thimerosol. It is time to look elsewhere.

Recently published research suggests a genetic variant could account for up to 15 percent of autism cases. Clinical trials are under way to investigate a compound that has proved effective in rescuing mice from symptoms of fragile X syndrome, which may be related to autism.

Clearly, more resources are needed for research and to support the educational needs of children with autism. We hope the retraction of Wakefield's journal article will be viewed a turning point in this process.