A leading San Diego expert on infectious diseases predicts that admirers of a British doctor discredited as having perpetrated a hoax involving a link between a childhood vaccine and autism will continue to believe his claims.
"Perhaps it's the need to have an answer when they have damaged children," said Dr. Sam Bozzettee, a professor at UC San Diego's school of medicine. "Because the belief is held so strongly, I don't think this is going to shake the faith of many of the faithful."
Bozzette, in an interview Thursday, was referring to Britsh physician Andrew Wakefield, whose medical license in Great Britain was revoked last year after his controversial study of 12 children in the U.K., which was published in "The Lancet" in 1998, was retracted last year.
An analysis of Wakefield's work, just published in the British Medical Journal, has concluded that Wakefield falsified and misstated data as part of a "deliberate ... elaborate fraud."
Says Bozzette: "There have been many studies that do not demonstrate a link [between the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella and autism]. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences has looked at this question at least twice, as have many courts. And almost universally, there has been no link; there is no credible evidence."
Bozzette notes that the Wakefield study, renounced by 10 of his 13 co-authors, struck an emotional, guilt-ridden chord with parents of autistic children who had received the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, known as MMR.
Data since the study was published indicates it created a scare among many other parents who've refused to have their kids immunized, leading to a big drop in vaccination rates in the U.K., and a somewhat smaller decrease here in the U.S.
Some of those who subscribed to Wakefield's thesis, said Bozzette, may now be persuaded otherwise.
"Others," he said, "will feel that [the British Medical Journal investigation is] part of the conspiracy to discredit this individual.... This is a very active, tight-knit, vocal minoreity that will hold this belief, and it seems unlikely that anything is going to shake the belief that these people have."
Bozzette said that the Wakefield study appeared to be on shaky academic grounds from the outset.
"Replication is the heart of science, and if people cannot replicate the findings, then that calls the original findings into question," Bozzette observed. "The temption to push findings a little too far -- to puff up the data, perhaps -- might be a little hard to resist in some cases. How people think they can fabricate material from whole cloth and get away with it is beyond me."