The prominent medical journal The Lancet has retracted a study published in 1998 that linked the measles-mumps-rubella MMR vaccine with developmental disorders in children.

Autism is a disorder in which development of the brain and central nervous system is impaired. Signs of autism are usually apparent in early childhood and include problems with social interaction and communication as well as a tendency toward repetitive behaviors. The causes of autism are not fully understood. The now retracted 1998 study suggested that autism may be associated with the MMR vaccine; these findings led to a decline in vaccinations in the UK and anti-vaccine movements in the United States.

Earlier this year the editors of The Lancet announced that, according to a judgment by the UK General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practise Panel, several elements of the 1998 study that linked the MMR vaccine to autism were “incorrect.” Among other things, the panel determined that the children evaluated in the 1998 study were not consecutively referred (as had originally been claimed), meaning they were intentionally selected. The claim that study procedures had been  approved by the local ethics committee also proved to be false.

In 2004, 10 of the 13 authors of the 1998 study issued a “retraction of interpretation,” in which they stated that the 1998 study did not establish a causal link between MMR vaccination and autism.  Specifically, they stated, “We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient. However, the possibility of such a link was raised and consequent events have had major implications for public health. In view of this, we consider now is the appropriate time that we should together formally retract the interpretation placed upon these findings in the paper, according to precedent.”

Whether or not this recent retraction of the study linking the MMR vaccine to autism will affect vaccination rates remains to be seen. Continuing research will be needed in order to better understand autism and its causes.


The Editors of The Lancet. Retraction—Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60175-4.

Wakefield AJ, Murch SH, Anthony A, et al. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet. 1998; 351: 637-641.

Murch SH, Anthony A, Casson DH. Retraction of an interpretation. Lancet. 2004;363:750.

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