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Vaccine-autism researcher should be prosecuted

By Alex B. Berezow, Special to CNN
  • British Medical Journal says study that linked autism to childhood vaccines was a fraud
  • Alex Berezow says researcher Andrew Wakefield should be prosecuted
  • Some parents declined vaccinations, endangering children's health, says Berezow
  • He says Wakefield's research led other scientists to waste time, money

Editor's note: Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.

(CNN) -- Finally, after 13 years of needless controversy, the British Medical Journal determined that Andrew Wakefield's vaccine-autism link constituted an "elaborate fraud."

Having already lost his medical license in the UK for unethical professional conduct, it is now time for him to be prosecuted.

The prosecution of a scientist, or any academic for that matter, might conjure up images of the trial of Galileo. For the sake of research integrity and academic freedom, it is not something to be undertaken lightly. Scientists require the flexibility to publish unconventional research, especially if that research is controversial or unsettling. However, there is a distinct line between controversy and fraud. Wakefield clearly crossed that line, according to the medical journal.

In 1998, Wakefield conducted a small study with 12 children in which he reported finding a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism. However, it was recently revealed that Wakefield manufactured the vaccine-autism link by falsifying patient histories. Despite the British journal's accusations, Wakefield maintains he did not commit fraud.

Scientific fraud is a very serious matter. From a fiscal standpoint, it is essentially stealing money. Whether the funding comes from taxpayers, charities or private sources, there is an expectation that the recipients of such largesse act in good faith and honesty. Any knowledge produced from this funding then enters the public domain via scientific journals. Thus, when a scientist fabricates data, he is not only squandering limited financial resources but is also violating the public's trust.

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Even worse, when a scientist commits fraud, he misleads his fellow colleagues for years, if not decades. Thousands of hours and millions of dollars are often wasted disproving the research, and those precious assets could have been better spent elsewhere. In this case, the scientific community has been wasting its resources on Wakefield's theory for 13 years.

As bad as that is, wasted time and money pale in comparison to the devastating personal consequences that occurred across the globe as a direct result of Wakefield's behavior. The marked decrease in vaccinations which occurred in the decade following his research literally cost people their lives. When parents refused to vaccinate their children, many of them contracted diseases such as measles and pertussis (whooping cough). Some of them died.

The reluctance of millions of people to accept the annual influenza vaccination also likely stems, at least in part, from the fallacious vaccine-autism link.

Prosecuting scientists is not common, but it is also not without precedent.

Eric Poehlman, a former obesity and menopause researcher, falsified data in grant applications to the National Institutes of Health. He was convicted of scientific misconduct and sentenced to a year in prison.

Additionally, disgraced researcher Hwang Woo-suk fabricated data in regard to the cloning of human embryos. He was tried in South Korea and convicted of embezzlement and bioethical violations, but he escaped a fraud conviction and jail time.

In the current case, the journal says, Wakefield purposefully manipulated patient histories in order to fabricate an erroneous link between vaccines and autism. The direct result of this was the creation and perpetuation of an insidious myth that may be unparalleled in modern day medicine. Amazingly, Wakefield even established the "Thoughtful House" in Austin, Texas, from which he promoted his quackery in the United States.

It is for these reasons that Wakefield should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of American and British law. Perhaps if he spends the next few years behind bars, people who have suffered from the impact of his actions will see that justice is being done.

Unfortunately, Wakefield's enthusiastic supporters have little use for facts. With Jenny McCarthy and others willing to use their celebrity to propagate this myth, the scourge of preventable childhood diseases may be with us for years to come.

Let us hope Hollywood sends us a pro-vaccine actor.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex B. Berezow.