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Andrew Wakefield, the British gastroenterologist whose comments at a press conference in 1998 sparked a scare over the safety of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR vaccine), has dropped his libel action against Channel 4.
The case was due to go to trial shortly after the end of a three month disciplinary hearing, which Dr Wakefield faces at the General Medical Council this July.
RadcliffesLeBrasseur, the solicitors acting for the Medical Protection Society, which was funding the libel case, said in a statement, “Consecutive hearings would have compromised Dr Wakefield's preparation for both hearings and would have placed an intolerable burden on him.” They added, “He remains confident that he will be vindicated.”
Lawyers say that the society could face a legal bill of more than £500000 (€740000; $970000) for both sides' legal costs of the discontinued libel action.
Dr Wakefield sued Channel 4, 20/20 Productions, and the investigative reporter Brian Deer, who presented the Dispatches programme MMR: What They Didn't Tell You in November 2004. The programme criticised Dr Wakefield's methods and accused him of undisclosed conflicts of interest. Dr Wakefield's decision to drop the case comes not long after a high court judge ordered the disclosure to his opponents of confidential documents supplied to the GMC for the disciplinary investigation (bmj.com, 6 Jan 2007, doi: 10.1136/bmj.39084.440509.DB), although there is no suggestion that the two developments are linked.
The documents included papers from his former employers, University College London, and from the Legal Services Commission, which funded Dr Wakefield's research on children whose parents hoped to bring a compensation claim against the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine.
Dr Wakefield failed to disclose the £55000 legal aid funding when he and his coauthors sent a paper to the Lancet on links between the measles virus, autism, and bowel disease, which included some of the children in the legal aid study.
He later denied a conflict of interest and said that the money had gone to his then employer, the Royal Free Hospital in London, and not to him personally. It emerged last month that he had also received hundreds of thousands of pounds in expert witness fees in the compensation case. This was eventually abandoned after legal aid, which amounted to more than £14m, was withdrawn.
Dr Wakefield said that the work had been spread over almost nine years, including during holidays, nights, and weekends, and had been used to fund a treatment centre in the United States for autistic children, where he now works.