One of the most inglorious episodes in recent medical history ended yesterday when the doctor who set off a global scare about the MMR vaccine was struck off the medical register.
Twelve years after publishing the now infamous 1998 Lancet paper, which suggested a link between the vaccine, bowel disease and autism, the General Medical Council found Andrew Wakefield, its chief author, guilty of serious professional misconduct over the way the research was conducted.
The GMC and the medical establishment will now hope that, after years of delay, the verdict draws a line under the affair which has seen vaccination rates plummet and cast neither of them in a flattering light.
They will also hope it douses speculation in the media, sections of which bear a heavy responsibility for the firestorm of warnings over MMR safety.
The verdict, which came after 217 days of deliberation by the five-member disciplinary panel — the longest in the GMC's 152-year-history — was devastating. Dr Wakefield (53) was found to have acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly”, to have shown a “callous disregard” for the suffering of children, and to have betrayed the trust of patients.
He conducted invasive tests on children without ethical approval, including lumbar punctures (a painful procedure in which samples of fluid are taken from around the spinal cord) which were not for their clinical benefit and “repeatedly breached fundamental principles of research medicine”.
The verdict affects his right to practice in the UK, but he is now based in the US.
Dr Wakefield said that he would appeal against the GMC's decision.
He defended his actions, adding: “I think it's a very sad day for British medicine when Government pressure and grossly distorted journalism can have such a profound effect on the conduct of healthcare for very sick children in the UK.”
His colleague, Professor John Walker-Smith, former head of the department of paediatric gastroenterology at the Royal Free Hospital in London, where the research was carried out, was also stuck off the register.
Professor Simon Murch, who was a junior consultant in the department at the time, was cleared of serious professional misconduct after the panel found that despite demonstrating “errors of judgement” he had acted in good faith.
Following publication of the Lancet study, vaccination rates against MMR plunged and have never fully recovered.