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Court: Vaccine not to blame for autism

Posted February 12, 2009
Updated March 9, 2009

— Vaccines aren't to blame for autism, a special federal court declared Thursday in a blow to thousands of families hoping to win compensation and to many more who are convinced of a connection.

The special masters who decided the case expressed sympathy for the families, some of whom have made emotional pleas describing their children's conditions, but the rulings were blunt: There's little if any evidence to support claims of a vaccine-autism link.

The evidence "is weak, contradictory and unpersuasive," concluded Special Master Denise Vowell. "Sadly, the petitioners in this litigation have been the victims of bad science conducted to support litigation rather than to advance medical and scientific understanding" of autism.

Michelle Weaver, mother of boy with autism Mother still blames son's autism on vaccines

Michelle Weaver, whose 7-year-old son has autism, disagreed with the court's findings.

"This is the government trying to cover their butts," the Harnett County mother said bluntly. "Thousands upon thousands of us cannot be wrong."

Science years ago reached the conclusion that there's no connection, but Thursday's rulings in a trio of cases still have far-reaching implications – offering reassurance to parents scared about vaccinating their babies because of a small but vocal anti-vaccine movement. Some vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles, are on the rise, and last fall a Minnesota baby who hadn't been vaccinated against meningitis died of that disease.

The special court represented a chance for vindication for families who blame vaccines for their children's autism. Known as "the people's court," the U.S. Court of Claims is different from many other courts: The families involved didn't have to prove the inoculations definitely caused the complex neurological disorder, just that they probably did.

More than 5,500 claims have been filed by families seeking compensation through the government's Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, and Thursday's rulings dealt with the first three test cases to settle which if any claims had merit. The first cases argued that a combination of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine plus other shots triggered autism.

"I must decide this case not on sentiment but by analyzing the evidence," said Special Master George Hastings Jr., writing specifically about Michelle Cedillo of Yuma, Ariz., who is disabled with autism, inflammatory bowel disease and other disorders that her parents blame on a measles vaccine given at 15 months.

"Unfortunately, the Cedillos have been misled by physicians who are guilty, in my view, of gross medical misjudgment," Hastings concluded.

Attorneys for the families said they were disappointed and may appeal.

"There was certainly no scientific proof that vaccines caused autism, but that's not the standard – the standard is likelihood," said Kevin Conway of Boston, who represented the Cedillos. "We thought our evidence was solid."

"Certainly, those three families are discouraged with the ruling," added Tom Powers, a Portland, Ore., attorney overseeing all the claims. "It's a big step. It's a significant step, but it's not the last step."

Indeed, the court's ruling will do little to change the minds of parents who believe vaccines have harmed their children, said the head of a consumer group that questions vaccine safety, the National Vaccine Information Center.

"I think it is a mistake to conclude that because these few test cases were denied compensation, that it's been decided vaccines don't play any role in regressive autism," said Barbara Loe Fisher, the center's president.

Weaver remains convinced her son, Ben, wouldn't have autism if not for immunizations he received at 12 and 15 months of age.

"Within 24 hours (of the first vaccinations), he developed an extremely high fever. Screaming, vomiting, and it never got better. It got worse," she said.

Doctors told her the child's symptoms were the result of a viral infection. So he got another round of vaccines three months later, which Weaver said wiped out nearly all traces of the boy she knew.

"He lost his speech completely. He'd crawl in a hole and cover up," she said. "It's almost like a death. It really is."

The court still must rule on additional cases that argue a different link – that vaccines that once carried the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal are to blame, if the mercury reached and damaged brain cells – and Powers said families making those claims remain hopeful. The court has given no timetable for a ruling.

But Thursday's rulings clearly gave great credence to numerous large studies that have looked for but not found any link between the measles vaccine, other vaccines and autism.

"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 that pledged to continue research into possible causes and better treatments.

"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, an infectious disease expert at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and developer of a vaccine for rotavirus.

"A choice not to get a vaccine is not a risk-free choice," Offit added, pointing to recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases that authorities suspect are partly due to delayed or rejected vaccinations.

Two children in North Carolina are diagnosed with autism each day, according to the Autism Society of North Carolina. Spokesman David Laxton said further research is needed on any link between the disease and vaccines, but he encouraged any family concerned about vaccines to discuss the risks with its pediatrician to make an informed decision.

Autism is best known for impairing a child's ability to communicate and interact. Recent data suggest a 10-fold increase in autism rates over the past decade, although it's unclear how much of the surge reflects better diagnosis.

Worry about a vaccine link first arose in 1998 when a British physician, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, published a medical journal article linking a particular type of autism and bowel disease to the measles vaccine. The study was soon discredited, and British medical authorities now are investigating professional misconduct charges against Wakefield.

Then came questions about thimerosal, a preservative that manufacturers began removing from all vaccines given to infants in 2001. Today it is present only in certain formulations of the flu shot.

Weaver said her son has made great strides with therapy, but she said she will always blame vaccines for his condition.

"I will go to my grave knowing and believing this is what's wrong with my child," she said.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • tetterbug113 Feb 13, 2009

    That's ok affirmativediversity since i'm unable to live forever I guess you the tax payer can be the cash cow when I'm gone. And for your info. the "right thing" would be having my kid self sufficient and not need anyone's help but that's not likely to happen.

  • MiHeKo Feb 13, 2009

    "I do not believe autism is caused by vaccines. What I do believe, however, and this is documented, that some people's bodies cannot withstand the trauma caused by the formula (vaccine+preservative+whateverthehellelseisinthere) injected into them, and this causes symptoms similar to clinically diagnosed autism."

    Local Know It All - I share your opinion. My 5 year old son was diagnosed with ASD when he was 2 years old and I can say with all certainty that he comes by it naturally.

    It's my belief that people forget that medicine is not a perfect science and that there will always be those who react adversely to a medication, procedure, or preventative vaccine that the majority of recipients respond to appropriately.

  • See Chart Feb 12, 2009

    Yup, This is the same country that tells you
    to watch out for Mercury in Tuna fish but says
    you can have mercury in your mouth in dental fillings.
    Makes you wonder ,doesn't it!

  • arroyofly Feb 12, 2009

    By the way, I don't think anyone is saying that vaccines are the only cause of autism, however they are often a direct cause of all types of problems, especially in children. For those who have children with autism, I would strongly urge a natural, dietary approach to treatment and healing. There are chelation and detoxification options for eliminating heavy metals, dietary changes, and supplementation. Supplementation of natural vitamin D3 (not synthetic) at doses higher than the recommended daily allowances (4,000 IUs or more) can help with a whole host of problems. I would recommend finding a naturopathic doctor and doing some research online because there are many doctors taking a non-drug approach and helping many people with alternative therapies than the ones being promulgated by the same people who made the millions off the harmful vaccines in the first place (the corrupt drug companies who steer all the "research" and "science" that promote their own toxic products).

  • affirmativediversity Feb 12, 2009

    teeterbug113...here is some hard truth...if your child is disabled (in anyway, especially in a meaningful way) they are the member of the only minority left in this country that can be legally segregated, routinely discouraged from employment, is ineligible to adopt or become a foster parent, is constantly portrayed as "helpless" "needy" or in essence "lacking and unequal"...if your child never works and you do not instill a sense of worth, value or work ethic then society is more likely to consider you having done "the right thing"...

    You deserve NOTHING because your child has a disability!!! Now, your child deserves EVERY opportunity EVERY OTHER CHILD receives BUT your child's disability is NOT a cash cow or a "debt" anyone should repay you! Your busy worrying about the apples when the oranges are falling off the tree!

  • arroyofly Feb 12, 2009

    So we should just trust what this "vaccine court" decided? Similar to the corrupt FDA, money talks. Vaccines contain a toxic brew of all sorts of artificial chemicals and are responsible for many, many injuries and deaths, including autism. Take Gardasil, for example, one of the biggest scam vaccines going around now that is injuring and killing many. http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2009/feb/02/chronically-ill-girl-eyes-vaccine/

    I feel very sorry for those who will defend vaccines blindly because their doctors tell them they are safe, or because the CDC recommends them, etc. Our bodies need NUTRITION, including proper amounts of vitamin D for instance, in order to stay healthy and prevent and treat disease. Vaccines and pharmaceuticals are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each and every year, as has been reported in FDA's own adverse event data reporting system (which accounts for an estimated 10% of actual cases). People, drugs and vaccines are not the answer!

  • affirmativediversity Feb 12, 2009

    UNC Doc posted, "You are absolutely correct. It is a complete disgrace how BCBS won't cover these essential services for disabled children."


    It could be worse. We could get Socialized Healthcare rammed down our throats. Then, that list of things "not covered" or the people deemed "ineligible or not cost effective" for treatment will GROW and GROW quickly!

    Just research these things people. This is a reality in Canada, Great Britian, most of Europe...ANYWHERE that has "government controlled/universal Healthcare!

  • tetterbug113 Feb 12, 2009

    Say what you want but I wouldn't expect to get rich out of this kind of ruling. As a parent of an autistic child I just want to provide my child with the best therapy(which I can't afford)so that she can grow up and be as productive as possible. Think about what it will mean when these kids become adults since about 80% of autistic individuals are currently under the age of 20. I would love to see the one study done that would put the vaccine controversy to rest, vaccinated vs. unvaccinated(Amish, homeschooled).

  • USA Feb 12, 2009

    Almost like a death? She can hug her child anytime she wants; she can tuck him in at night; she can watch him grow up. I hope she never has to feel what it's like to never be able to do those simple things. I know she is upset at this finding, but to compare her situation to those have lost a child is the most ignorant words I've ever heard spoken. I pray you never have to go through the pain of burying your child!

  • agricon3 Feb 12, 2009

    Great comment tobis. My children also show asberger's traits. They dealin social situations so much better than I could and I'm thankful for that.