The claim that autism is linked to vaccinations, and in particular the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, has taken a further blow with the US Court of Federal Claims rejecting claims in three separate cases that the mercury-containing preservative, thimerosal, does not cause autism. This follows a similar ruling a year ago in the same court.
The US Congress set up the special judicial forum, sometimes called the ‘vaccine court’, in 1986 to address claims over vaccine safety, following pressure from parents and anti-vaccine lobbies. The cases heard in 2009 concerned supposed links between autism, thimerosal and the MMR vaccine which found that these two ingredients did not cause the disorder.
The recent cases, ruled on by three judges called ‘special masters’, were chosen as test cases as they were considered to be among the strongest proposed. Their rejection means that the case for a link between thimerosal – and vaccines generally – with autism is that much weaker.
Special Master George L Hastings wrote in his judgement on one case that “This case … is not a close case. The overall weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ causation theories.”
Patricia Campbell-Smith, special master on another case, said that “The petitioners’ theory of vaccine-related causation is scientifically unsupportable.”
The claim that MMR vaccine had a causative link with autism received much of its momentum from a paper published in The Lancet in 1998 which was authored by Dr Andrew Wakefield and 12 others (ten of whom later repudiated the paper). Despite the fact that the paper only suggested further study might be warranted, it caused a sensation in the UK in particular, and led to a serious decline in childhood vaccinations; a decline from which the UK is still recovering.
Since then, Wakefield’s research methods have been soundly rebuked by the UK General medical Council, The Lancet has retracted the original paper, another of Wakefield’s co-authored papers has been withdrawn by the journal NeuroToxicology and in February Wakefield resigned from Thoughtful House, the autism centre he had founded in Austin, Texas, in 2005.
Anti-vaccine groups have called the recent judgements biased in favour of vaccination and vaccine manufacturers, with some suggesting they are part of a conspiracy to protect vaccination programs. JB Handley, a co-founder of anti-vaccination group Generation Rescue, was quoted in the LA Times saying: “The average citizen has no hope. … The courts won’t concede something that will bring down the vaccination program.”
That the proponents had brought no convincing scientific evidence of any link – as the judgements say – is conveniently by-passed in favour of claims of conspiracy and vested interests.
There are fears, however, that the ‘vaccine court’ decisions might push anti-vaccination damages claims into the US Supreme Court, where non-specialist judges would be tied up in dubious ‘scientific’ debate. That court has already agreed to hear an appeal from Pittsburgh parents who want to sue vaccine manufacturer Wyeth directly claiming their daughter suffered a series of seizures after being vaccinated. According to the LA Times, “they argued that they cannot get a fair hearing in the vaccine court”.
More than 5300 parents have filed claims seeking damages with the vaccine court. These, it is feared, may now be moved on appeal to the US Supreme Court.