The Web is buzzing with the news that the British medical journal, The Lancet, has completely retracted the 1998 paper that sparked widespread fears that the MMR vaccine was causing an autism epidemic. (It's summed up neatly in this New York Times piece .)
Perhaps the most interesting question being raised in the wake of the Feb. 2 decision is this: What took so long?
Members of the medical research community have been paraphrased and quoted at the end of a post on Booster Shots, a blog from the Los Angeles Times , saying that this action should have been taken years ago. "Finally" was the reaction in an item on the New Yorker's blog by Michael Specter, who recently was featured in a podcast from the medical school, discussing his book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. I was one of a number of writers who had written over the last five years about how there was no link between the MMR vaccine and the spike in autism diagnoses. (My article "The Demonization of Immunization" ran last spring.)
To be fair, the Lancet already did a partial retraction a few years ago, when 10 of the 13 authors asked to have their names removed from the paper. Its editor was pushed to take this final step when the UK General Medical Council, which oversees the licensing of doctors in England, completed what was said to be its longest-ever medical misconduct inquiry, starting in July 2007: It ruled that the lead author of the Lancet article, Andrew Wakefield, MD, had violated at least 30 ethical rules and concluded, among other things, that he had provided false information relating to the study and acted with "callous disregard" for the children in the study. Of course, Wakefield is insisting he has been framed, and there is still a core group of people who remain adamant about a connection between MMR and autism, though they are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Still, it is troubling how long it took for this theory to be debunked. What's so striking about the ruling and the retraction is that it essentially mirrors the special three-part investigation that ran in The Sunday Times of London in 2004 by Brian Deer (who, by the way, wrote what I think is by far and away the strongest story about the medical council's decision). Deer's story eventually had its effect, and now journalists everywhere are echoing his points. While some in the U.S. media exercised similar skepticism, it is remarkable how long it took for so many outlets in this country to accept the scandal that Deer's brilliant reporting uncovered.