Sunday, February 08, 2009

Weird (and very bad) Science

On the heels of the recent discussion about inoculations, the London Times is reporting that "the doctor who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine for children changed and misreported results in his research, creating the appearance of a possible link with autism" (MMR is the abbreviation for the vaccine given for the diseases measles, mumps, and rubella).

The article is interesting; the reporters unraveled the tale by obtaining some confidential medical documents and witness interviews. What is really surprising is that the original study was based on only 12 children, and was subsequently published in the venerable British medical journal, The Lancet. I'm certainly not a scientist, but that sounds like a rather small sample size. Is this common, those of you in scientific fields?

Of course, the sample size doesn't matter when the evidence is tampered with. The linked article lays out the investigators' findings as such:

"confirmed by evidence presented to the General Medical Council (GMC), reveals that: In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated. Hospital pathologists, looking for inflammatory bowel disease, reported in the majority of cases that the gut was normal. This was then reviewed and the Lancet paper showed them as abnormal."

That's pretty shocking, and not without consequence. Inoculation rates in the U.K. have fallen to below 80% from as high as 92%, and there were 1,348 cases of measles last year, versus 56 in 1998. The article was published in 1998, and eventually recanted in 2004 by most of the authors of the paper. The recent reporting comes out of an investigation by the U.K.'s General Medical Council into Andrew Wakefield, the center of the controversy.

It seems like a case where the peer-review model failed, but can we really hold the system accountable if the data are false? But what about the sample size? Where in the system are the controls for data integrity? I would assume that severe cesure and professional death are strong controls on most researchers not doing something like this. If Andrew Wakefield is found guilty of unethical behavior by the General Medical Council, I'm sure he'll likely face a number of nasty, career-ending punishments. Even though the study had been basically discredited over the last five years, this new information really seals the deal, it seems-- and certainly doesn't bode well for Wakefield.

In addition, I think this speaks directly to what my fellow bloggers on this site have been talking about with respect to the need for professional journalism. Brian Deer's decade long investigation of this fraudulent study is an example of the press doing something invaluable for society, something that could not be done by anyone but a supported, professional journalist. Especially when the people being investigated sue the journalist (as Wakefield did to Deer, though Wakefield had to abandon the suit and was forced to pay a settlement to Deer-- seriously, that is a great system to stop junk lawsuits). Deer also reported that Wakefield had applied for patents for a measles vaccine that would serve as an alternative to the MMR vaccine. Deer's site has an amazing run-down of the ten-year unfolding of this scandal.

In any event, this is more evidence that you need to get your kids fucking vaccinated, even if your religion requires a medieval distrust of science and book-larnin', or you choose to believe in mystic crystals, tarot cards, and Earth Godesses to keep your offspring healthy.