The controversy over the safety of the MMR vaccine reached new heights yesterday when 10 of the 13 authors of the original paper that provoked the scare publicly dissociated themselves from it.

The 10 were part of the research team led by Dr Andrew Wakefield, based at the Royal Free Hospital in London, who published their findings of a new inflammatory bowel disease linked with autism, and suggested a possible link with the MMR vaccine, in The Lancet journal in February 1998.

The warning about MMR was later amplified by Dr Wakefield at a press conference - to the disquiet of his co-authors - and the subsequent scare has led tens of thousands of parents to boycott the vaccine.

Last month it emerged that Dr Wakefield had been paid £55,000 for his research fund by the Legal Aid Board to investigate a possible claim against the vaccine manufacturers involving some of the children who were included in The Lancet study.

Dr Wakefield's failure to disclose this conflict of interest appears to have been the last straw for his co-authors who have now retracted the section of the paper that linked autism with MMR. Their move follows the announcement last month by Richard Horton, The Lancet's editor, that the claims about MMR would not have been published had Dr Wakefield declared the conflict of interest over the legal aid payment. Dr Horton said it left the paper "fatally flawed."

In a statement released by The Lancet yesterday, the 10 authors said the paper made it clear that "no causal link was established" between MMR and autism because the data was insufficient. "However, the possibility of such a link was raised and consequent events have had major implications for public health," the statement said.

While further evidence has emerged since the paper was published linking the bowel disease with autism, subsequent research has failed to confirm a link with the MMR vaccine.

The move leaves Dr Wakefield, who has pursued his campaign against MMR for at least 10 years, more isolated than ever. He has the support of only one of the original 13 researchers, Peter Harvey, a retired consultant neurologist.

One author, John Linnell, could not be contacted by the 10 who signed the statement.

In an accompanying commentary, Dr Horton acknowledged his own part in the MMR scare. "While editors of medical journals should continue to publish original and sometimes unpopular ideas in responsible ways, they must take greater care to appreciate that their responsibility extends to all aspects of the public dissemination of the work they print."

He calls on the Government to create an independent Council of Research Integrity to investigate serious allegations of research misconduct and to back further research into autism and measures to strengthen vaccine safety.

But he rejects calls for a public inquiry on the grounds that it is more likely to "entrench divisions", and suggests instead a "collaborative consultation" between all interested parties to learn the lessons.

He says: "An enormous amount of effort has gone into reviewing and analysing the events before and after publication of the 1998 article. It is time now to look forward."

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