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More Questions Than Answers as Federal Trial Weighs Claims That Vaccines Cause Autism

07/12/2007
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A trial that began June 11 in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, DC pits 4800 families of children with autism, the plaintiffs, against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This first of nine test cases promises to become a landmark debate about the causes of autism generally, and, more specifically, about any causative role played by vaccines for childhood diseases such as measles and mumps.

Petitioners say the culprit is either the mercury-containing vaccine preservative called thimerosal or the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) – which does not contain thimerosal – or a combination of the two. Advocates of this position claim that autism rates have skyrocketed since these vaccinations became mandatory, citing recent CDC findings that one in 150 eight-year-olds now has an “autistic spectrum” disorder. Parents of children with autism offer heart-rending anecdotal information about bright, active two- or three-year-olds who, after being vaccinated, have impaired social and communications skills and can no longer even feed themselves.

On the other side of the argument are scientists who say there is no research that supports the theory that vaccinations cause autism. In editorial comment June 16, the Washington Post points out that since 2001, no vaccines recommended for children under 6 have contained thimerosal, and autism rates do not appear to be dropping. Further, these new statistics can be attributed to improved detection of autism and expansion of definitions of autism to milder cases that were not counted in previous years (http://www.washingtonpost.com/).

In addition to the public dialogue facilitated by this lawsuit, there is a financial factor. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, created by Congress to shield vaccine manufacturers from lawsuits, has the power to award compensation from a $2.5 billion fund financed by vaccine taxes. Although a no-fault system is in place, awards cannot be made unless it can be shown that vaccines were more likely than not the cause of a child’s autism.

This is a thorny issue, and it underscores the brilliance of our civil justice system in exposing and exploring difficult questions. Lacking scientific evidence, unsubstantiated allegations about vaccines nonetheless could keep parents from vaccinating their children and lead to equally damaging and lethal epidemics. If there is some measure of scientific evidence against vaccines, how does blind Lady Justice weigh the good that vaccines do against the dangers of autism? And what about the precedent of shielding pharmaceutical companies from lawsuits if – and it’s a big if – research should be uncovered that links their vaccines with autism?

For all these reasons, this is a trial worth watching.

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