A research controversy that nearly 10 years ago unnerved parents, seriously undermined the UK government’s vaccination policy, and brought the medical establishment out in force will be back in the public eye next week.

At a hearing in London starting on July 16, the General Medical Council (GMC) will launch disciplinary proceedings against the doctor and two professors whose research into alleged links between the triple measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, inflammatory bowel disease and autism sparked a nationwide scare with ramifications that continue to this day.

In particular, the inquiry by the GMC’s Fitness to Practise Panel will turn the spotlight back on Dr Andrew Wakefield, who now practises in the US and is still a hero to parents who regard him as the scapegoat for a high-level political and medical cover-up over the vaccine’s safety. Wakefield’s public recommendation that the MMR vaccine should no longer be used until its potential association with autism had been clarified set off a wave of panic among parents and led to a significant decline in the UK’s MMR vaccination rate.

The research published by Wakefield and his colleagues from London’s Royal Free Hospital in The Lancet was subsequently discredited, not least when Wakefield was found to be working covertly for an organisation preparing a class action over alleged side-effects from the vaccine. Last year The Lancet’s editor Dr Richard Horton admitted at a conference that publishing the paper in February 1998 had been an “incredible mistake”.

Serious professional misconduct

The GMC panel will investigate allegations of serious professional misconduct by Wakefield, Professor John Walker-Smith and Professor Simon Murch in relation to the research they conducted with young children between 1996 and 1998. It will not enter into the debate over the validity of the links between the MMR vaccine, inflammatory bowel disease and autism suggested by Wakefield et al. “The GMC does not regard its remit as extending to arbitrating between competing scientific theories generated in the course of medical research,” it stated.

Among the allegations are that the three practitioners broke the terms of the ethics committee approval for their study; that some investigations carried out on children, including colonoscopies and lumbar punctures, were against the children’s clinical interests; and that the researchers inaccurately stated in their Lancet paper that investigations reported in the paper had been cleared by the ethics committee.

Dr Wakefield and Professor Walker-Smith are further accused of having acted dishonestly and irresponsibly by failing to disclose in The Lancet the methods used to recruit patients for the research; and of having administered a “purportedly therapeutic” substance to a child for experimental purposes prior to obtaining information about its safety.

Legal Advice

It is also alleged that Wakefield advised solicitors acting for people claimed to have suffered harm from the MMR vaccine; that his conduct in relation to research funds obtained from the Legal Aid Board was dishonest and misleading; and that he failed to disclose to Richard Horton his involvement in the MMR litigation, his receipt of funding from the LAB and his involvement in a patent relating to a new vaccine.

Further questions have been raised as to whether Wakefield had the necessary paediatric qualifications to order investigations on some children as part of the research carried out at the Royal Free Hospital. In addition, he is alleged to have acted unethically and abused his position of trust as a medical practitioner by taking blood from children at a birthday party for research purposes, without ethics committee approval, in an inappropriate social setting and while offering financial inducement.

In the meantime, new research from Cambridge University will give some encouragement to Wakefield and his supporters, who continue to insist that a link between the MMR vaccine and autism cannot be ruled out. The study of primary school children in Cambridgeshire found that as many as one in 58 children in the UK may have some form of autism, compared with the established estimate of one in 100. Two of the research team have suggested that in small numbers of children the MMR vaccine could be a factor.