A doctor, whose name was struck off over the MMR (vaccine against Measles, Mumps and Rubella) jab controversy, has yesterday won a High Court appeal to clear his name.
Professor John Walker-Smith had been found guilty of professional misconduct following claims he took part in unapproved research that suggested links between the vaccine, bowel disease and autism. Professor Walker-Smith lost his license to practice in May 2010 along with Dr Andrew Wakefield, who led the research. A General Medical Council’s ‘fitness to practice’ panel found both men guilty of misconduct over the way the work was conducted after 217 days of deliberation – the longest disciplinary case in the body’s 150- year history.
In 2004, the Lancet announced a partial retraction, and 10 of the 13 authors disowned it. Wakefield was the paper's chief author and Walker-Smith the then head of the department of pediatric gastroenterology at the Royal Free, where the research was carried out. Walker-Smith's clinical role focused on treatment related to sick children, while his academic work included collaborating in research with Wakefield.
Professor Walker-Smith, 75, always denied allegations that he had participated in the research under the guise of carrying out clinical investigations and treatment of young patients, including colonoscopies, at the Royal Free Hospital in North London. The retired doctor said the work was necessary for the purposes of diagnosis and treatment, and was not done to aid the research.
The decision to strike off had been defended at a recent hearing as “just and fair – not wrong” by Joanna Glynn QC, for the GMC. She said, “In spite of inadequate reasons it is quite clear on overwhelming evidence that the charges are made out.”
Mr. Justice Mitting criticized the disciplinary panel’s ‘inadequate and superficial reasoning’ and ‘wrong conclusions’ before ruling, “The panel’s determination cannot stand. I therefore quash it.” He called for such cases to be overseen by someone with ‘judicial experience’ in future.
As he left court with relatives, Professor Walker-Smith said, “I am extremely pleased with the outcome of my appeal. There has been a great burden on me and my family since the allegations were first made in 2004 and throughout the hearing that ran from 2007 to 2010. I am relieved that this matter is now over.” He paid tribute to his supporters, who included the parents of many children with autism and bowel disease seen by him at the Royal Free Hospital in north London up to his retirement in 2001.
Mr. Justice Mitting added that Dr Wakefield’s comments and subsequent publicity about possible links between autism and the MMR jab, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella, “had a predictable adverse effect upon the take-up of the vaccine” which was “of great concern to those responsible for public health” He stressed, “There is now no respectable body of opinion which supports [Dr Wakefield’s] hypothesis that MMR vaccine and autism [or] enterocolitis are causally linked.”
Dr Helen Bedford, a senior lecturer at the UCL Institute of Child Health, added, “There has never been any sound evidence of a link. Indeed, there is a strong body of research showing no link. However, many parents who were anxious about the safety of the MMR vaccine decided not to have their children immunized. Fortunately, it is never too late to have the MMR vaccine and I would strongly recommend that young people who missed out when they were younger have two doses of the vaccine to protect them.”
The GMC’s chief executive, Niall Dickson, said ‘key changes’ to its disciplinary hearings were already being prepared. He said, “Today's ruling does not however reopen the debate about the MMR vaccine and autism. As Mr. Justice Mitting observed in his judgment, ‘There is now no respectable body of opinion which supports (Dr Wakefield's) hypothesis, that MMR vaccine and autism/enterocolitis are causally linked’.”