A doctor's primary duty is to "first, do no harm."
Some version of those words are part of every oath taken by physicians since ancient times. They mean that a doctor is better off doing nothing than taking some action that might harm a patient.
But a great deal of harm has been done by the flawed science of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a British researcher who was the lead author of a 1998 study that linked vaccines for common childhood diseases to autism.
Wakefield's paper, published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine with bowel troubles and autism in children. The report sent parents on both sides of the Atlantic into panic, led some to refuse to vaccinate their children and produced a rebound in infection rates for diseases once believed to have been eradicated in the developed world.
Last week, The Lancet, after years of criticism of the study's flawed methodology and shoddy science, finally retracted it. But like the bell that cannot be unrung, the belief that vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent persists among too many parents.
Vaccination is one of the triumphs of modern science. The idea that a small amount of disease-causing bacteria or virus, injected into a human body, would produce antibodies to resist a wider infection has saved million of lives and prevented untold suffering.
Crippling and deadly diseases like polio and smallpox have been virtually eliminated in the developed world. Lesser threats, such as measles, that killed in smaller numbers were also nearly eradicated — until the Wakefield study, that is.
Following the study's publication, vaccination rates plummeted in the United Kingdom. There was no comparable decline in the United States. But infection rates for measles increased sevenfold in both countries.
A review by a British regulatory board found serious flaws in the Wakefield study. The General Medical Council concluded, among other findings, that Wakefield lacked qualifications to oversee some of the procedures performed some of his patients. It found he failed to disclose conflicts of interests — Wakefield had accepted some $75,000 in research funds from lawyers representing parents who believed their children had been injured by the vaccine. The panel found he had also obtained blood samples, not through ordinary medical protocols but by paying children who attended a birthday party for his son.
Wakefield, who now heads an autism center in Texas, said the panel's findings were unfounded and unjust.
The vaccine scare put millions of children's lives at risk unnecessarily. The bulk of the medical evidence finds no link between vaccination and autism. The risk of side effects from vaccination is minimal compared to the real risk of death or injury from the diseases vaccines prevent.
The vaccine scare illustrates the power of shoddy science to undo the work of decades of real, competent research aimed at improving the human condition.