For the second time this year, families claiming that vaccinations triggered autism in their young children will head to a federal court to determine whether they are eligible to collect damages from the government.
The case, which begins today, offers two 10-year-old boys from Portland, Ore. — William Mead and Jordan King — as test cases for the theory that thimerosal-containing vaccines, on their own, cause autism.
Lawyers for these families maintain that the boys were developing normally until they were exposed to vaccines containing thimerosal, a preservative containing mercury. After receiving these vaccinations, the attorneys say, the boys began to show symptoms of autism — a developmental disability characterized by difficulty in communicating and interacting with others.
The theory that thimerosal is singularly culpable in bringing about autism is only one of three upon which courts will decide. In 2007, hearings were conducted in three test cases intended to examine whether the combination of measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccines containing thimerosal cause autism. And later this year, attorneys will present four more test cases to determine whether MMR vaccines, regardless of whether or not they contain thimerosal, may bring about the condition.
Each of these theories challenge the position held by the mainstream medical community that vaccines, whether they contain thimerosal or not, do not cause autism — a position that a majority of scientific studies support.
In 2004, a panel convened by the Institute of Medicine concluded there was no credible evidence that the thimerosal in vaccines led to autism. Still, since 2001, the ingredient has been removed from most vaccines, save for certain influenza shots, in response to autism fears.
Still, attorneys for the families involved need only show that it is more likely than not that thimerosal-containing vaccines caused the boys' injuries.
If successful, the families could receive compensation for past and future medical expenses, special education expenses and up to $250,000 for pain and suffering, among other monies. The final decision, which could take up to several months to arrive, may be appealed by either the families or the federal government.
The case at hand, as well as other cases involving possible injury brought about by a vaccine, are handled under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Program enacted in 1986. The program set up a no-fault system in which people with grievances could file injury claims against the federal government rather than sue the companies that made the vaccine or the health-care providers who administered it.
A "special master" appointed by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims reviews these cases to determine whether vaccines were more likely the cause of the injury at hand. If the government chooses not to rebut the claim by showing that the vaccine probably was not responsible for the injury, the claim is approved and an award is made.
The legal standard set by this system is therefore a much lower bar than the demands of medical validity, which would require a much greater magnitude of evidence to draw the conclusion that vaccines were in any way responsible for an injury.