THURSDAY, Feb. 12 (HealthDay News) -- There's no scientific evidence that childhood vaccines such as the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine caused autism in children of parents seeking compensation from a federal fund, a U.S. court ruled Thursday.
The ruling, which involved test cases of children from three different families, was a setback for parents who had filed claims seeking monetary awards from a U.S.-run vaccine compensation program. More than 5,500 such claims have been filed. The claims were reviewed by the Office of Special Masters, part of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
"It was abundantly clear that petitioners' theories of causation were speculative and unpersuasive," the court said in one of the three cases ruled on Thursday. The court also said "the weight of scientific research and authority" was "simply more persuasive on nearly every point in contention," the Associated Press reported.
Federal health experts applauded the decision.
"The medical and scientific communities have carefully and thoroughly reviewed the evidence concerning the vaccine-autism theory and have found no association between vaccines and autism," the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement on its Web site. "If parents have questions or concerns about childhood vaccines, they should talk with their child's health care provider.
"Hopefully, the determination by the special masters will help reassure parents that vaccines do not cause autism," the statement added.
The court still has to rule on claims from other families, as well as families who contend that thimerosal, a preservative that's no longer used in most routine children's vaccines, caused autism in their children.
But, a judge did hint at future decisions when he stated, "The petitioners have failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to causing immune dysfunction," the AP said.
Thursday's ruling is unlikely to end the long-standing dispute over whether childhood vaccines can cause neurological disorders such as autism, as opponents continued to stake out familiar sides of the debate.
"From a medical standpoint, the special master has decided that the legal claim was not supported by the scientific evidence," said Dr. Robert Frenck Jr., professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious diseases. "That the scientific evidence was indicating that there really was not a relationship between MMR plus thimerosal and autism."
In a prepared statement, Dr. Joseph Heyman, board chairman of the American Medical Association, said: "Three recent rulings by the Special Masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims provide even more overwhelming evidence that there is no association between vaccines and autism or related disorders. Vaccines are one of the best public health accomplishments of all time and have proven time and time again their ability to keep horrific diseases at bay. Measles, rubella, and polio are among the success stories of diseases eliminated in the U.S., but are still active in other countries and could rebound here."
Dr. Barbara Trommer, associate director of the developmental center at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City, said, "The message to parents should be that the health benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks.
"I wish it [Thursday's ruling] were enough to quell the controversy, but I fear that it might not be enough," Trommer added.
On this point, at least, some opponents agreed.
"This is going to fuel the controversy. This could have the effect of further freaking parents out," said James Moody, director of SAFE MINDS (Sensible Action for Ending Mercury-Induced Neurological Disorders) and a director of the National Autism Association. "Always in test litigation, you win a few, you lose a few. This [ruling] is unremarkable, although we would hope for something better."
According to Moody, the basic research needed to determine whether or not childhood vaccines are safe still hasn't been done, and, because doubt exists, the court should have ruled in favor of the families.
"When we ask kids to take vaccinations, we make a sacred bargain with them as soldiers in the war against infectious disease that if they are injured regardless of what the injury is, that we'll take care of them," he said.
According to Moody, families can also take their claims to civil courts.
Autism Speaks, an advocacy group for children with the condition, said in prepared statement: "Today the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program ruled that the combination MMR vaccine -- with and without the preservative thimerosal -- did not contribute to three particular children's autism. These latest rulings are limited, and do not mitigate the need for further scientific investigation."
Thursday's decision follows a published report earlier this week that the British doctor whose 1998 paper fueled international fears of a link between childhood vaccines and autism had manipulated and changed the data to make his case.
An investigative report by the Sunday Times of London stated that Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues altered confidential and public records to support their claim that eight of 12 autistic children attending a routine clinic at Wakefield's hospital had developed symptoms of autism only days after they were given the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. But, almost all of the children had developed symptoms of autism well before receiving the shot, according to published reports.
Wakefield denied the allegations in the Sunday Times of London report.
Since Wakefield's original paper was published in The Lancet, numerous studies have failed to find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
In February 2008, British researchers reported in the Archives of Disease in Childhood that their large study failed to uncover a connection. The researchers based their finding on a sample of 240 children -- 98 who had been diagnosed with autism, and two comparison groups: 52 children with special educational needs who were not autistic; and 90 children who had no developmental problems.
And a large-scale U.S. Institute of Medicine review in 2004 also failed to uncover a link between childhood vaccines and autism.
The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was created in 1988 as, among other things, a venue for resolving vaccine injury claims. In 2001, parents began filing claims contending that some childhood vaccinations could cause autism spectrum disorders. The Office of Special Masters issued a general order in 2002, establishing a procedure for addressing this so-called "Omnibus Autism Proceedings."
According to CNN, the families filing claims fall into three categories: those alleging that MMR vaccines and vaccines containing thimerosal in combination can cause autism; those claiming that only thimerosal-containing vaccines can do such damage; and those who claim MMR vaccines not including thimerosal can cause autism.
Thursday's court ruling concerned only families in the first category, the news network said.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health says that one American child in 150 has been diagnosed with autism, although experts wonder if that increasing number is due in part to better diagnoses and a broader definition of the disorder.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on childhood vaccinations.
SOURCES: Robert Frenck Jr., M.D., professor of pediatrics, Cincinnati Children's Hospital, member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious diseases; Barbara Trommer, M.D., associate director, Developmental Center, Maimonides Medical Center, New York City; James Moody, director, SAFE MINDS, and a director, National Autism Association, Nixa, Mo.; Feb. 12, 2009; news release, American Medical Association, Chicago; Feb. 12, 2009; news release, Autism Speaks, New York City; Associated Press; CNN