Ruling Won't End Autism Debate, Groups Pledge

Most doctors applaud the ruling; advocacy groups say the legal battle isn't over

February 12, 2009, 4:21 PM

Feb. 13, 2009 — -- Autism advocacy groups that support the idea of a link between vaccines and the development of autism said a ruling handed down Thursday by a special court was devastating -- but that it will not sway them from their cause.

In the ruling, three special masters of the U.S. Court of Claims note that the evidence presented in the case overwhelmingly contradicts the parents' claims that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine was to blame for their children's development of autism. The finding is in line with the majority of scientific studies on autism.

Doctors and other medical experts overwhelmingly applauded the ruling, maintaining that it reinforces the message that vaccination does not lead to autism.

"This is a real victory for children and a great day for science," said pediatrician Dr. Paul Offit, chief of Infectious Diseases and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, during a Thursday press conference sponsored by the vaccination advocacy group Every Child by Two. "I hope that this decision will finally put parents' fears to rest."

And some doctors said that the ruling may even end the decade-old debate that has swirled around the idea that measles-mumps-rubella MMR vaccines are somehow linked to autism.

"This should settle the issue of MMR vaccine -- by itself or 'combined' with thimerosal from other vaccines -- as an alleged cause of autism," said Dr. Max Wiznitzer of Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland.

However, the issue remains far from settled for the groups that maintain such a link exists.

"I'm devastated today," said Rebecca Estepp, national media manager for the organization Talk About Curing Autism. "But I also know that the decision will be appealed.

"As parents, we feel like, OK, we're going to fight even harder to get justice for our children," she added. "In a way this might have reignited our cause... Just because we lost today does not mean we will lose in the future."

Another autism advocacy group, Autism Speaks, issued a statement saying the ruling does not erase the questions they say still surround vaccine safety.

"These latest rulings are limited and do not mitigate the need for further scientific investigation," the statement reads. "While large-scale studies have not shown a link between vaccines and autism, there are lingering legitimate questions about the safety of vaccines that must be addressed."

Not the Last Day in Court

The legal fight could be far from over for the approximately 4,900 families involved in the cases, who together have filed more than 5,500 claims that vaccines harmed their children. All of the families seek compensation through the government's Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, a no-fault fund set up to administer awards to families who can show that their children were harmed by vaccines.

The cases directly affected by the special court's ruling involved three families who claimed that the mercury-containing preservative thimerosol in vaccines set their children's immune systems up for damage from other components of the MMR vaccine, resulting in autism.

Tom Powers, the Oregon attorney who leads the litigation steering committee for the plaintiffs, said it is too early to close the book on the three test cases affected by today's ruling. The plaintiffs have a 30-day window to consider the grounds upon which they may contest the decision, and an appeal is likely.

"It's a little premature to say that even for these three families the process is over," he said.

Powers added that the theory scrutinized in this case was just one of two theories that will be brought before the special court. The other theory maintains that thimerosol alone brought about autism in some children.

"There is no doubt that this is disappointing news," Powers said. "On the other hand, the message to the families is that we will continue to prosecute the cases... follow the science, and see where it leads us."

Still, most in the medical community feel that the preponderance of scientific evidence has already led to the conclusion that vaccines are not responsible for autism.

"It is completely understandable that parents who are desperately looking for a cause of why their child turned out this way will focus on the vaccine," said Dr. Shlomo Shinnar, professor of neurology and pediatrics at Montefiore Medical Center, in Bronx, N.Y. "But there is a large body of scientific data that has refuted this association... It is reassuring that the special masters who are dealing with this were guided by the weight of the available scientific evidence on this important public health issue."

"I am thrilled that this ruling will enable the medical community to speak with conviction about the importance and safety of childhood vaccination," said BethAnn McLaughlin of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine's department of neurology in Nashville, Tenn. "We recognize that while we are under-funded to study many of the chemicals our families and children come in contact with every day, that the debate about vaccination causing autism should be ended."

Joanna Schaffhausen and Audrey Grayson contributed to this report.

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