LONDON — The doctor whose research linking autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella influenced millions of parents to refuse the shot for their children was banned Monday from practicing medicine in his native Britain.
Dr. Andrew Wakefield's 1998 study was discredited, but vaccination rates have never fully recovered and he continues to enjoy a vocal following, helped in the United States by endorsements from celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy
Wakefield was the first researcher to publish a peer-reviewed study suggesting a connection between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. Legions of parents abandoned the vaccine, leading to a resurgence of measles in Western countries where it had been mostly stamped out. There are outbreaks across Europe every year and sporadic outbreaks in the United States.
"That is Andrew Wakefield's legacy," said Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "The hospitalizations and deaths of children from measles who could have easily avoided the disease."
Wakefield's discredited theories had a tremendous impact in the United States, Offit said, adding: "He gave heft to the notion that vaccines in general cause autism."
In Britain, Wakefield's research led to a huge decline in the number of children receiving the MMR vaccine: from 95 percent in 1995 — enough to prevent measles outbreaks — to 50 percent in parts of London in the early 2000s. Rates have begun to recover, though not enough to prevent outbreaks. In 2006, a 13-year-old boy became the first to die of measles in Britain in 14 years.
On Monday, Britain's General Medical Council, which licenses and oversees doctors, found Wakefield guilty of serious professional misconduct and stripped him of the right to practice medicine in the U.K. Wakefield said he plans to appeal the ruling, which takes effect within 28 days.
The council was acting on a finding in January that Wakefield and two other doctors showed a "callous disregard" for the children in their study, published in 1998 in the medical journal Lancet. The medical body said Wakefield took blood samples from children at his son's birthday party, paying them 5 pounds (about $7.20) each and later joked about the incident.
The study has since been widely rejected. From 1998-2004, studies in journals including the Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Pediatrics and BMJ published papers showing no link between autism and the measles vaccine.
Wakefield moved to the United States in 2004 and set up an autism research center in Austin, Texas, where he gained a wide following despite being unlicensed as a doctor there and facing skepticism from the medical community. He quit earlier this year.
Offit said he doubted Britain's decision to strip the 53-year-old Wakefield of his medical license would convince many parents that vaccines are safe.
"He's become almost like a Christ-like figure, and it doesn't matter that science has proven him wrong," Offit said. "He is a hero for parents who think no one else is listening to them."