Vaccines are not to blame for autism in three children, according to long-awaited rulings from a special federal court this morning. The families had filed claims arguing that the measles-mumps-rubella shot, which contained the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, was responsible for their children's autism and other neurological problems.
The cases have been intensely watched in the hugely contentious battle over whether vaccines cause autism. Both sides hoped that a win in "vaccine court" would end the controversy, which was sparked by a 1998 paper in the British journal Lancet, linking developmental delays with MMR vaccinations. That paper is also controversial; 10 of the 13 authors retracted it in 2004, but the lead author, Andrew Wakefield, has not. A report in last Sunday's Times of London says Wakefield altered clinical findings on 8 of 12 children in the study, a charge Wakefield denies.
In the case of one child, Michelle Cedillo, special master George L. Hastings Jr. ruled in the U.S. Court of Claims in Washington that the evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the family's claims. Hastings said that the government's expert witnesses were more qualified than those called by the family and that numerous medical studies "have come down strongly against the petitioners' contentions."
At the end of the 183-page ruling, Hastings acknowledges that the Cedillo family has been through a "tragic and painful ordeal" and adds that he has no doubt that Theresa and Michael Cedillo, Michelle's parents, are sincere in their belief that the MMR vaccine played a role in causing their daughter's problems, which include autism, mental retardation, and gastrointestinal difficulties:
"After studying the extensive evidence in this case for many months, I am convinced that the reports and advice given to the Cedillos by Dr. [Arthur] Krigsman and some other physicians, advising the Cedillos that there is a causal connection between Michelle's MMR vaccination and her chronic conditions, have been very wrong. Unfortunately, the Cedillos have been misled by physicians who are guilty, in my view, of gross medical misjudgment. Nevertheless, I can understand why the Cedillos found such reports and advice to be believable under the circumstances.
"I conclude that the Cedillos filed this Program claim in good faith. Thus, I feel deep sympathy and admiration for the Cedillo family. And I have no doubt that the families of countless other autistic children, families that cope every day with the tremendous challenges of caring for autistic children, are similarly deserving of sympathy and admiration.
"However, I must decide this case not on sentiment, but by analyzing the evidence."
In 2009, the federal vaccine injury program agreed to compensate 9-year-old Hannah Poling, a Georgia girl whose parents said she had developed autism after receiving a series of vaccines as an infant. Federal officials say the vaccines exacerbated the girl's rare mitochondrial disease, but the case gave hope to more than 5,000 other families who think that vaccines caused autism in their children. The unanimous decisions released today make it less likely that other families will prevail.
"It's disappointing on a number of different levels," says John Gilmore, executive director of Autism United, a coalition of advocacy groups in Hicksville, N.Y. "This is sort of giving a message that families that want to seek redress in the vaccine court have an extraordinarily high level of proof that they have to meet, which I don't think was the original intent of the legislation." Gilmore says that not enough research has been done on either the health effects of vaccines or the causes of autism.
Should parents take a flexible approach to vaccination? Here are the pros and cons. Meanwhile, vaccine developer Paul Offitt says allergies to vaccines pose the biggest health risk. And my colleague Deborah Kotz looks beyond the MMR and autism to examine the larger issue of vaccine safety and what you can do to protect your kids.