In February, 2009 a special US federal court ruled in the case of three children that vaccines did not cause their autism; their families were claiming that the MMR vaccine, which contained the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, had caused their children to develop autism and several other conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease.
According to the Associated Press (AP), more than 5,500 claims have been filed by families hoping to get compensation through the government's Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, and this ruling comes as a blow to them and thousands of others who believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism.
The claims are filed with the "people's court," the US Court of Claims in Washington. This court is different to many others in that the claimants don't have to prove that the vaccines caused the autism, just that they probably did.
But Special Master George Hastings Jr, whose ruling in the case of one of the children, Michelle Cedillo of Yuma, Arizona, extended to 183 pages, said:"Unfortunately, the Cedillos have been misled by physicians who are guilty, in my view, of gross medical misjudgment."
He said he had to decide the case by analyzing the evidence and not on sentiment. The Cedillos had claimed that a measles vaccine given to Michelle when she was 15 months old had triggered her autism, inflammatory bowel disease, and other disorders that have left her considerably disabled.
"If thimerosal in vaccines were causing autism, we'd expect that diagnoses of autism would decrease dramatically after the chemical was removed from vaccines," says Eric Fombonne, MD, director of the psychiatry division at Montreal Children's Hospital and a member of the National Institutes of Health advisory board for autism research programs.
But a large study published in Archives of General Psychiatry found that cases of autism continued to increase in California long after 2001, when thimerosal was removed from most childhood vaccines in the U.S. (it's still found in some flu shots).
"Not only did cases not decrease -- but they continued to rise," says Fombonne. "That tells us that something else must be responsible for rising rates of autism in this country."
This study is the latest in a series of many others, in other countries and populations, which drew similar conclusions. "Thimerosal was removed from vaccines in Canada in 1996 and in Denmark in 1992," says Dr. Fombonne. "Autism is still on the rise in those countries as well."
And in 2004, both the World Health Organization and Institute of Medicine each concluded no link between autism rates and thimerosal exposure after examining the health records of hundreds of thousands of children.
But, consumer groups who support the view that the vaccines caused autism are not deterred by the ruling and continue to assert their case. Head of the National Vaccine Information Center, Barbara Loe Fischer said she thought it was a mistake to think that because these three families have not won their claim it has been decided that vaccines don't play a role in the development of autism.
SafeMinds, an autism advocacy organization, issued a statement following the court ruling. They said the ruling was based on "inadequate vaccine safety science available to the court" and said there was a conflict of interest in that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is both the "defendant in court" and also responsible for carrying out the vaccine safety research. They said this conflict of interest was sufficient to cast doubt on the "integrity of the National Immunization Program".
Director of SafeMinds and an advisor to the Petitioners Steering Committee of the US Federal Court of Claims, Jim Moody, said: "The government has its thumb on the scales of justice."
Executive director of SafeMinds, Sallie Bernard, said: "A neutral agency must initiate an extensive safety program, including studies of the health outcomes in vaccinated and unvaccinated groups.""Otherwise, trust in immunization will continue to deteriorate," she added.
Have you cared for children with autism while working as a nanny or au pair?