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.