Court Says Vaccine Is Not to Blame for Autism
Special court rules against families who claim measles vaccine caused children's autism
By KEVIN FREKING and LAURAN NEERGAARD Associated Press Writers
WASHINGTON February 12, 2009 (AP)
The Associated Press
A special court on Thursday said that the measles vaccine is not to blame for autism in children.
(ABC News Photo Illustration)
In a big blow to parents who believe vaccines caused their children's autism, a special court ruled Thursday that the shots are not to blame. The court said the evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the parents' claims ― and backed years of science that found no risk.
"It was abundantly clear that petitioners' theories of causation were speculative and unpersuasive," the court concluded in one of a trio of cases ruled on Thursday.
The ruling was anxiously awaited by health authorities and families who began presenting evidence in June 2007. More than 5,500 claims have been filed by families seeking compensation through the government's Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. The claims are reviewed by special masters serving on the U.S. Court of Claims.
"Hopefully, the determination by the special masters will help reassure parents that vaccines do not cause autism," the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.
An attorney for the families did not respond immediately to a request for comment. But the head of one consumer group that questions vaccine safety, the National Vaccine Information Center, said the court's ruling will do little to change the minds of most parents who suspect a link between vaccines and autism. She said more studies are needed.
"I think it is a mistake to conclude that, because these few test cases were denied compensation, it's been decided vaccines don't play any role in regressive autism," said Barbara Loe Fisher, the center's president.
To win, the families' attorneys had to show that it was more likely than not that the autistic symptoms in the children were directly related to a combination of the measles-mumps-rubella shots and other shots that at the time carried a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosal. The ruling means that families filing claims based on that theory ― potentially thousands ― aren't entitled to federal compensation, though they can appeal.
"It's a great day for science, it's a great day for America's children when the court rules in favor of science." said Dr. Paul Offit of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
The court still has to rule on separate claims from other families who contend that, rather than a specific vaccine combination, the lone culprit could be thimerosal, a preservative that is no longer in most routine children's vaccines. But in Thursday's rulings, the court may have sent a signal on those cases, too:
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"The petitioners have failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to causing immune dysfunction," one of the court's special masters wrote.
In 2001, parents of children with autism began filing petitions for compensation through the vaccine compensation program. Of the 12,850 cases ever filed through the program, about 5,535 represented autism cases.
The petitioners originally sought to present three different theories of how vaccines could cause autism. For each theory, there were to be three test cases.
Under the government's vaccine compensation program, awards to the estate in a vaccine-related death are limited to $250,000 plus attorneys' fees and costs. Awards to individuals with an injury judged to be vaccine-related have averaged more than $1 million.
More than half a million U.S. children have autism with costly health care needs that often put an unprecedented financial strain on their families, national data show. Autism is characterized by impaired social interaction. Those affected often have trouble communicating, and they exhibit unusual or severely limited activities and interests.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Court Says Vaccine Not to Blame for Autism
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
Published: February 12, 2009
In a blow to the movement arguing that vaccines lead to autism, a special court ruled on Thursday against three families seeking compensation from the federal vaccine-injury fund.
Both sides in the debate have been awaiting decisions in these test cases since hearings began in 2007; more than 5,000 similar claims have been filed.
In the three cases, each decided by a judge called a special master, the court found that the families had not shown that their children’s autism was brought on by substances in the vaccines ― either the measles virus in the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, or its combination with thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that was used in most childhood vaccines until 2001.
In a case pitting the family of Michelle Cedillo, a severely autistic child, against the Department of Health and Human Services, the judge ruled that the Cedillos had “failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to causing immune dysfunction, or that the M.M.R. vaccine can contribute to causing either autism or gastrointestinal dysfunction.”
In his decision, the special master, George L. Hastings Jr., ruled that the government’s expert witnesses were “far better qualified, far more experienced and far more persuasive” than the Cedillos’. Although the family had to show only that the preponderance of evidence was on their side, Mr. Hastings ruled that the evidence was “overwhelmingly contrary” to their argument.
While expressing “deep sympathy and admiration” for the family, he ruled that they had been “misled by physicians who are guilty, in my view, of gross medical misjudgment.”
The other two special masters, Denise Vowell and Patricia Campbell-Smith, rendered similar decisions in cases involving two other children, William Y. Hazlehurst and Colten Snyder.
The judges considered 5,000 pages of testimony from experts and 939 medical articles.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs have indicated they will appeal. Pediatricians and government agencies welcomed the rulings.
“Hopefully, the determination by the special masters will help reassure parents that vaccines do not cause autism,” the Health and Human Services Department said in a statement.
Dr. Michael T. Brady, a pediatrician in Columbus, Ohio, who is a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the academy was “obviously very satisfied” with the rulings and hoped that they would mean that pediatricians would meet less resistance from parents over vaccinating children.
In contrast, J. B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue, which blames vaccines for autism, said the decision not to compensate the Cedillos was “an incomprehensible injustice.”
Autism Speaks, which finances research and has sharp divisions among founding members on the vaccine question, said the rulings “do not mitigate the need for further scientific investigation.”
The fund was created in 1988 to compensate children hurt by vaccines without the need for lawsuits against vaccine makers; a tax on all vaccines goes into it.
No one disputes that in rare cases, vaccines can cause shock, brain inflammation and death, especially in children with allergies or compromised immune systems. The law recognizes specified side effects for each vaccine; autism is not among them. It allows parents to make claims for other side effects, but sets specific criteria they must meet to show blame.
Last March, in a settlement reached in the compensation court, the federal government did concede that a young girl with autism had been damaged by vaccines. But the government and other experts said the case was not a precedent because the girl, Hannah Poling, had a number of unusual conditions that might have contributed to her disorder.
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