Following a two and a half year investigation, the UK’s General Medical Council (GMC) has determined that Andrew Wakefield, the 53-year old doctor who published research and made public statements suggesting that the MMR vaccine caused autism, is guilty of serious professional misconduct and ruled that he be struck off the medical register.

The investigation did not focus on the argument of Wakefield’s research but the way he conducted it, and concluded he had acted dishonestly and unethically.

Unless Wakefield appeals within 28 days, he will effectively be banned from practising medicine in the UK. He has told the media that he intends to appeal.

The GMC posted a notice of its ruling, titled “Determination on Serious Professional Misconduct (SPM) and sanction” against Dr Andrew Jeremy Wakefield on its website on Monday. The decision was made by the GMC’s Fitness to Practise Panel.

The Panel had already ruled in January that Wakefield had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in the way he carried out his research, but according to the GMC’s own procedures, the sanctions have to be decided at a later date.

The Panel cited several counts of professional misconduct relating to the period leading up to the publication of his research in the late 1990s, when Wakefield was working at the Royal Free Hospital in London as a gastroenterologist.

The Panels’ chairman, Dr Surendra Kumar, told the BBC that Wakefield had “brought the medical profession into disrepute”, that they had found “multiple separate instances of serious professional misconduct”.

Altogether, the Panel found Wakefield guilty of 30 separate charges.

These included taking blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party and paying them £5 each, and not disclosing the fact that he had been paid to advise legal representatives of parents who thought their children had been harmed by the MMR vaccine and were looking to sue the manufacturers. He was also accused of using funds for purposes other than those for which they were granted.

The GMC Panel also found Wakefield caused young and vulnerable children to “undergo the invasive procedure of lumbar puncture when such investigation was for research purposes and was not clinically indicated” and that he told the ethics committee that they had been clinically indicated. They also cited other cases where Wakefield, in their judgement, had “acted contrary to the clinical interests of each child”.

The Panel said it was “profoundly concerned that Dr Wakefield repeatedly breached fundamental principles of research medicine”, and concluded that “his actions in this area alone were sufficient to amount to serious professional misconduct”.

Shortly after the January ruling, The Lancet retracted the 1998 study by Wakefield and colleagues, where they had suggested a link between the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps and rubella) and autism in children: the paper triggered a worldwide controversial debate about the safety of the MMR vaccine and is thought to have caused a serious setback to children’s vaccination programmes and a rise in childhood measles cases in the UK and elsewhere.

The GMC also struck off one of Wakefield’s associates, 73-year old Dr John Walker-Smith, who retired 10 years ago. He was found guilty of professional misconduct. Another associate, Dr Simon Murch was found not guilty of professional misconduct and was not struck off.

Wakefield, who currently resides in the US, told the BBC shortly after the GMC announcement, that he will be appealing against the ruling and maintained, as he has since the investigation began, that the allegations against him were “unfounded and unjust”.

In an interview with the “Today” show on NBC on Monday he said the ruling was a “bump in the road” and that he would continue to investigate the link between vaccines and autism. He said the parents were not going away, the children were not going away, and he “most certainly” was not going away, reported the New York Times.

Sources: GMC, BBC, New York Times.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD