On March 12, 2010, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (i.e. Vaccine Court) issued its decision regarding whether thimerosal-containing vaccines can cause autism. The decision, handed down by three Special Masters, was a resounding “No!”
In the King case, the Special Master wrote: “This case is not a close case. The overall weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ causation theories…based upon all the evidence that I have reviewed, I find that it is extremely unlikely that Jordan’s autism was in any way causally connected to his thimerosal-containing vaccines. In short, this is a case in which the evidence is so one-sided that any nuances in the interpretation of the causation case law would make no difference to the outcome of the case.”
And in the Dwyer case the Special Master wrote: “Petitioners propose effects from mercury in [vaccines] that do not resemble mercury’s known effects in the brain, either behaviorally or at the cellular level. To prevail, they must show that the exquisitely small amounts of mercury in [vaccines] that reach the brain can produce devastating effects that far larger amounts experienced prenatally or postnatally from other sources do not.”
In the Dwyer case, the Special Master also dismissed claims that some groups of children are unusually susceptible to the effects of mercury, writing, “the only evidence that these children are unusually sensitive is the fact of their [autism] itself.”
This whole process began back in 2002 when the Special Masters from the Vaccine Court created an omnibus proceeding for handling the claims alleging that vaccines were associated with autism. The March ruling focused on whether thimerosal-containing vaccines could cause autism. Last August, the court ruled that thimerosal in combination with MMR vaccine could not cause autism.
There are two key points to keep in mind with regard to these proceedings. First, the special masters are not scientists and they did not answer a scientific question with their rulings. The science had been in for some time now in and it’s quite clear. Vaccines do not cause autism. Multiple studies have been conducted (www.autismsciencefoundation.org/autismandvaccines.html) investigating whether or not thimerosal, at the level contained in vaccines, causes autism and looking at hundreds of thousands of children on several different continents by several different investigators and in different populations of children. Children who received thimerosal in vaccines, compared to those who received lesser quantities of thimerosal in vaccines or no thimerosal in vaccines, all had the same risk of autism. And frankly, the amount of mercury one is exposed to in the environment or even breast milk, compared to what is contained in vaccines, would argue against vaccines being causative.
Secondly, a review of the history of vaccine court indicates that this court hasn’t always come down on the side of the science. The standard of evidence bar is purposely set very low in vaccine court. The court was designed to compensate victims of vaccine injury, which of course is very real. The standard of evidence is biologic plausibility, rather than scientific evidence. In other words, you don’t have to prove that thimerosal actually causes autism, only that it might. One of the goals of the legislation creating the vaccine court in 1986 was to be generous with compensation because there are people who have very real, very serious adverse reactions to vaccines who deserve to be compensated. And if you look at other rulings, this court tends to err on the side of overcompensating to avoid a big spillover into civil courts. Another goal of the vaccine court is to avoid massive civil litigation that could put us back where we were in the early 1980s where companies were exiting the vaccine manufacturing business over fear of litigation.
Several anti-vaccine organizations have complained that the “deck is stacked against children in vaccine court because the court is government run, investigating a government-recommended vaccine schedule,” but the facts do not bear out this claim. In fact, over 2,400 vaccine court plaintiffs (80% of whom were children) have received compensation from the vaccine court. The difference is that these families were able to tie a reported vaccine injury to the vaccine. The plaintiffs in the autism cases were not.
It’s natural to want to understand why your child was diagnosed with autism and hard to accept the idea that a child may struggle and have huge challenges all their life. It’s also natural to want to blame someone or something. But families need to look at the data. Parents can’t be so focused on anger that they lose sight of what the science is saying because that’s not in the best interest of the kids. At the Autism Science Foundation, we always encourage parents to look at the science and make decisions based on the science. And this is what the special masters did. They looked at the data.
Hopefully after today’s ruling, we can put this issue behind us and move forward and direct our scarce autism research dollars to studies that will provide new information about what causes autism and how best to treat it.
Alison Singer is President of the Autism Science Foundation (www.autismsciencefoundation.org). She has a daughter and an older brother with autism.