Feb 12, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – In a ruling that aligns with numerous research studies, a special federal court today rejected claims by three sets of parents that vaccines caused their children's autism.
The US Court of Federal Claims ruled against claims that autism was triggered by measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine or by MMR vaccine in combination with vaccines containing thimerosal.
"After careful consideration of all the evidence, it was abundantly clear that petitioners' theories of causation were speculative and unpersuasive," wrote the special master (judge) in one of the three decisions.
The Court of Claims weighs complaints brought by citizens under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, a federal no-fault program set up in 1986 to reduce the number of lawsuits against physicians and vaccine makers. As of May 2008, more than 12,800 cases had been filed under the program, 5,365 of those related to autism. Since 1988, the program has paid out more than $859 million to a total of 956 claimants, according to Court of Claims documents.
According to court documents, today's decisions came in three test cases based on one of three "causation theories" proposed by parents of children with autism: that MMR vaccines and thimerosal-containing vaccines can combine to cause autism. Thimerosal is a mercury-containing compound that is used as a preservative in some vaccines, including some influenza vaccines. Hearings in the three cases were held in 2007.
Federal officials and public health and medical groups welcomed today's rulings, while saying that the search for the cause of autism must continue.
"Hopefully, the determination by the Special Masters will help reassure parents that vaccines do not cause autism," the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in a statement.
The statement said HHS "continues to support research to better understand the cause of autistic disorders and develop more effective methods of treatment."
Dr. Paul E. Jarris, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said in an e-mailed statement, "We are glad to see that the Court upheld the strong science supporting the safety of vaccines. Unfortunately, we still do not understand the true causes of autism. Parents of children with autism are struggling to find answers and provide their children with adequate care. We urge researchers to redouble their efforts to find a cause and a cure."
The American Medical Association also hailed the rulings, stating: "Autism is a heart-wrenching condition, and the upheaval felt by parents whose children suffer with autism is understandable—as is their search for answers. We need ongoing research into the causes of autism, but cannot let unfounded myths keep us from giving our children the proven protection they need against infectious diseases."
But SafeMinds, an autism advocacy group, criticized the decision, saying the deck is stacked against claimants because HHS funds vaccine safety research and is the defendant in vaccine injury cases.
The group commented, "The denial of reasonable compensation to families was based on inadequate vaccine safety science available to the court. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the defendant in vaccine injury cases and is also responsible for carrying out the very vaccine safety research that should be integral to court decisions. This conflict of interest means the deck is stacked against families when they enter 'vaccine court' and is yet one more reason for parents to doubt the integrity of the National Immunization Program."
One of the three families involved in the cases decided today claimed that vaccines containing thimerosal can cause immune dysfunction and that MMR vaccine can cause both autism and gastrointestinal dysfunction, according to the decision document. But Special Master George Hastings wrote that the "evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners' contentions."
In another case, parents argued that a combination of thimerosal-containing vaccines and the measles component of the MMR vaccine caused their son to suffer a "pervasive developmental disorder," similar to autism spectrum disorder. Special Master Denise Vowell wrote that the evidence presented was "voluminous and extraordinarily complex"—but unpersuasive.
Autism decision documents
US Court of Claims autism proceeding page
Court of Claims backgrounder on autism proceedings
Feb 12 HHS news release