Essays December 2010

Autism and the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccine: Need to Communicate a Health Study Retraction to Patients

Mary Seeman and Neil Seeman

The public is concerned over the safety of vaccines for children. If such fears translate into avoidance of vaccines, the public health of the community is at risk. The 1998 study by Wakefield and colleagues, which linked the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine (MMR) to bowel disorders and autism, sparked global concern over the safety of the MMR vaccine. On February 2, 2010, the Lancet published a full formal retraction of the Wakefield study.

Objectives: The aim of this study was to elicit the beliefs of the Canadian public about the safety of the MMR vaccine immediately following the 2010 retraction.

Method: A random sample of Canadian internet users was surveyed between February 5 and February 9, 2010.

Results: Sixty-five percent of Canadian women and 72% of Canadian men surveyed believed a) that the vaccine was unsafe or else b) they were unsure whether or not the MMR vaccine could cause autism.

Conclusions: Given the state of public confusion over the safety of the MMR vaccine, physicians bear a responsibility to advise all patients about the risks of withholding childhood vaccination. Forceful and systematic disclosure of the significance of the retraction creates a precedent for participatory health and meaningful physician-patient communication.

Keywords: Measles Mumps Rubella Vaccine, MMR, autism, retraction, informed consent

Citation: Seeman N, Seeman M: Autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine: need to communicate a health study retraction to patients. J Participat Med. 2010 Dec 17; 2:e18.

Published: December 17, 2010.

Competing Interests: The RIWI Corporation conducted the online survey for this article without compensation, in the public interest. Bob Seeman, a Director of RIWI, is the brother of Neil Seeman and the son of Mary Seeman.


The study linking measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism created a tremendous amount of confusion and led many parents to opt out of the vaccine for their children. So widespread is international public confusion over the safety of this vaccine that it is critically important for physicians and other health care professionals to communicate to their patients the Lancet‘s February 2, 2010 full retraction[1] of the 1998 study by Wakefield and colleagues.[2] This discredited study, which had linked MMR to bowel disorders and autism, sparked a global health scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine. The Lancet had issued a partial retraction of the paper in 2004,[3] signed by 10 of the 13 original authors. They wrote, “the possibility of such a link was raised and consequent events have had major implications for public health.”

The implications were indeed major. Vaccination rates in England decreased from 92% before the publication of the original Lancet article in 1998 to 79% in 2003.[4] In the US, as of January 2009, 11.5% of parents reported refusing at least one recommended vaccine for their children.[5] Childhood vaccination rates in the US in 2009 declined by almost four percentage points in commercial health plans, according to the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA).[6] The NCQA interpreted this decline in its report of October 13, 2010: “A possible cause of this drop is commercial plan parents may refuse vaccines for their children based on the unproven, but increasingly popular, notion that vaccines cause autism. Celebrity activists are outspoken advocates of this view.”


The aim of the present study was to investigate the beliefs of Canadians about the safety of the MMR vaccine immediately after the 2010 retraction.

For the complete paper please go to:  Autism and the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella Vaccine: Need to Communicate a Health Study Retraction to Patients


About the Author

Mary Seeman, OC, MD is professor emerita of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Neil Seeman is Director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College.


Originally printed in The Journal of Participatory Medicine, Vol. 2, 2010 | Research | December 17, 2010 by Neil Seeman & Mary Seeman


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