Source:  Times Online

Raf Sanchez, David Rose

Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who triggered the MMR vaccine scare, has been struck off the medical register.

After nearly three years of formal investigation by the General Medical Council (GMC), Dr Wakefield has been found guilty of serious professional misconduct over “unethical” research that sparked unfounded fears that the vaccine was linked to bowel disease and autism.

Parents were advised yesterday that it was “never too late” to give their children the triple vaccine to protect against measles, mumps and rubella, as the case drew to a close.

The decision marks the culmination of the longest medical misconduct hearing in the GMC’s 150-year history, which has been going on since July 2007.

A fitness to practise panel has already found Dr Wakefield and two other doctors guilty of a series of charges over the way they conducted research on 12 children, published in The Lancet medical journal in 1998.

Announcing the final verdicts, Surendra Kumar, chair of the GMC’s fitness to practise panel, said that Dr Wakefield had been “irresponsible”, “misleading” and “dishonest”, in the way in which he carried out and presented the study, which involved carrying out unnecessary and invasive tests on children without official permission.

“The panel is profoundly concerned that Dr Wakefield repeatedly breached fundamental principles of reseach medicine,” Dr Kumar told the hearing in central London. “It concluded that his actions in this area alone were sufficient to amount to serious professional misconduct.”

Dr Wakefield, 53, also “showed a callous disregard” for the suffering of children by taking blood samples from them at his son’s birthday party, and failed to declare a conflict of interest — that he had received £50,000 to carry out research on behalf of parents who suspected that MMR could lead to autism.

Dr Wakefield’s former colleague, John Walker-Smith, 73, was also found guilty of serious professional misconduct and struck off the medical register for his role in carrying out procedures on the children.

Another doctor, Simon Murch, was not found not guilty, despite having previously been found to not have ethical approvals for the study.

The panel said that the decision to strike off Dr Wakefield was the “only sanction that is appropriate to protect patients and is in the wider public interest, including the maintanence of public trust and confidence in the [medical] profession.”

The doctors, formerly employed at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, North London, sparked the biggest health scare in a generation when they published claims linking the vaccine, recommended to all infants at 13 months, to a new type of bowel disease, and also linked it to the development of autism.

The fallout from the study — including Prime Minister Tony Blair’s refusal to say whether his infant son had been vaccinated — caused hundreds of thousands of parents to boycott the jab. Immunisation rates fell, leading to a resurgence of potentially deadly measles cases in recent years.

The Lancet, which had withdrawn contested parts of the paper in 2004, subsequently retracted the article in full.

The GMC looked only at how the doctors’ acted during the research, not whether the findings were right or wrong — although they have been roundly rejected by medical experts and multiple large-scale studies.

Dr Kumar, who led a panel of three doctors and two lay members which sat and deliberated on the case for a total of 217 days, said that Dr Wakefield showed a continued lack of insight as to his misconduct.

Dr Wakefield, who moved to America in 2001, did not attend today’s hearing. He has previously said that the GMC’s case against him is “unjust and unfounded”.

He now has 28 days to appeal against the verdict at the High Court.

In a statement yesterday he said: “Efforts to discredit and silence me through the GMC process have provided a screen to shield the Government from exposure on the MMR vaccine scandal.”

But the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said that the false suggestion of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine had done “untold damage to the UK vaccination programme”.

“We cannot stress too strongly that all children and young peopel should have the MMR vaccine. Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that it is safe,” it said.

A Department of Health spokesperson added: “The GMC has given its conclusions on Dr Wakefield’s fitness to practice. The safety of MMR has been endorsed through numerous studies in many countries. Thankfully, more parents are having their children vaccinated with MMR and they see it as being as safe as other childhood vaccines.”