Vaccines don't cause autism, federal court rules

WASHINGTON — The United States’ "vaccine court" has once again concluded that vaccines don't cause autism.

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims rejected claims in three test cases that tried to show that vaccines preserved with thimerosal contributed to the development of autism.

The ruling March 12 comes a year after the same court rejected the claims of three other test cases. In those cases, experts failed to convince the court that the combined effects of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and thimerosal caused autism.

Thimerosal contains mercury, which can affect brain development if children are exposed to large amounts. ??But vaccines preserved with thimerosal contain only tiny amounts of mercury. And numerous studies from around the world have found no evidence that autism is more common in children exposed to thimerosal through vaccines.

Groups that support childhood vaccination, as well as some autism groups, praised the court’s decision.

"We all feel for the families," said Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation. "But we can't lose sight of the science."

It's time to stop trying to blame vaccines for autism and invest in research that could lead to the real cause, Singer told National Public Radio.

The petitioners to the so-called vaccine court can still ask for a review of the decision and appeal it to higher courts. They also can still sue vaccine makers directly.

If the court's decision holds up, it will mean that children with autism are not eligible for payments from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

The three rulings are the second step in the Omnibus Autism Proceeding begun in 2002 in the United States Court of Federal Claims. The proceeding combines the cases of 5,000 families with autistic children seeking compensation from the federal vaccine injury fund, which comes from a 75-cent tax on every dose of vaccine.

Families of children hurt by vaccines— for example, who suffer fatal allergic reactions— are paid from it but are unable to sue the vaccine manufacturer. The fund has never accepted that vaccines cause autism; the omnibus proceeding, with nine test cases based on three different theories, was begun in 2002.

The anti-vaccine groups also lost the first three cases, which were decided in February 2009 by the same three judges, known as special masters. All three rulings were upheld on their first appeals.

The Coalition for Vaccine Safety, a group of organizations that believe vaccines cause autism, dismissed the rulings.

“The deck is stacked against families in vaccine court,” said Rebecca Estepp, of the coalition’s steering committee. “Government attorneys defend a government program using government-funded science before government judges. Where’s the justice in that?” The coalition claims to represent 75,000 families.

The vaccine injury fund and the court overseeing it were created in 1988 after judgments in state court lawsuits over vaccines became so inconsistent and so expensive that vaccine companies started quitting the American market.

In a telephone press conference after the rulings March 12, Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the inventor of a rotavirus vaccine from which he receives royalties, praised the decisions, saying: “This hypothesis has already had its day in scientific court, but in America we like to have our day in literal court. Fortunately, we now have these rulings.”

Even with this decision, Offit said, “it’s very hard to 'unscare' people after you’ve scared them.”