Court Ruling Is Another Big Blow to Autism-Vaccine Link

February 13, 2009 12:27 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A U.S. court ruled against three families who believe a vaccine caused their children’s autism. The decision supports expert opinion, but many parents still believe there is a connection.

Families Will Not Receive Compensation for Autism

The parents of Michelle Cedillo, Colten Snyder and William Yates Hazlehurst believe that a vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) caused autism—a developmental disorder—in their children, claiming that their children were not autistic before the immunization.
The families sought payment under the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, “a no-fault system that has a $2.5 billion fund built up from a 75-cent-per-dose tax on vaccines,” reports Reuters.

The court, made up of three “special masters” instead of judges, heard the claims of the three families, who represent thousands of other petitioners. Parents believe the MMR vaccine—specifically, the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal in the vaccine—causes autism symptoms.

But most autism experts say the link is a myth. Special Master George Hastings said of the Cedillo case that “the petitioners have also failed to demonstrate that her vaccinations played any role at all in causing those problems.”
The parents’ fears stem mostly from a 1998 study published in the medical journal The Lancet, which linked the MMR vaccine to autism. The study, based on 12 children, led many parents to forego vaccination to protect their children from autism, and over the last decade, the prevalence of measles has risen worldwide.

But a recent story in the Times of London claims that study author Dr. Andrew Wakefield submitted false data in the study. “In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records,” according to the newspaper. The article also says several parents raised concerns about their children before getting the MMR vaccine.

Wakefield denied the allegations in a written statement and said that there continues to a reasonable basis for suspecting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.  

Researchers, however, claim that parents only see a connection because the vaccination is given at around one year, when autism dianoses are usually made. 

Furthermore, reports NPR, although lawyers for the family argued that thimerosal could cause brain damage, the MMR vaccine no longer contains the agent.

Background: Vaccine fears, measles outbreaks

In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of measles cases had risen to 131 so far in 2008, more than triple the number reported in 2007. In none of those cases has anyone died from the highly infectious disease.

Measles cases are growing worldwide. In the last two years, more than 12,000 people in Europe have gotten measles, according to a Lancet study, Bloomberg reports.

The CDC said that roughly half of the U.S. cases occurred because parents refused to vaccinate their children. Some parents believe the measles shot or a vaccine preservative which contains mercury causes autism, but officials say there is no good evidence of that.

The vaccine issue is widely debated among doctors and parents. Some parents who choose not to vaccinate their children because they are worried about the autism link find their children are facing a new set of social problems: they are ostracized in schools and playgroups. Many parents who do vaccinate feel they have a right to protect their children by knowing who has been vaccinated; since vaccines are not 100 percent effective, an infected child can pose a risk, even to a vaccinated child.

But many parents who believe that there is a vaccine–autism link remain convinced and some medical cases make the issue more confusing. In March, Hannah Poling’s parents sucessfully sued a federal vaccine oversight body, contending that a string of nine vaccinations administered to the girl as a toddler exacerbated an underlying condition that led to her developing encephalopathy. That encephalopathy contributed to developmental delays and had features similar to symptoms of autism.

After the verdict was announced, however, health officials were quick to reassure the public that vaccinations are safe.

The World Health Organization had hoped to completely eradicate measles from Europe by 2010, but to do that, vaccination rates have to be 95 percent in every country, Bloomberg reported in January.

“If we don’t achieve 95 percent coverage, it seems like we will never achieve the goal,” Mark Muscat, an epidemiologist at Copenhagen’s Statens Serum Institut, told Bloomberg.

Countries with rates lower than 90 percent included the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and Romania, Bloomberg said. Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia have vaccination rates higher than 95 percent.

American public health officials have connected some recent measles cases to people who have recently arrived from Europe. For example, officials in Suffolk County, N.Y. issued an alert in August about a teenager who was infected with measles visited a mall. The girl didn’t know she had the disease, according to WCBS, but was “highly contagious” when she was out in public.

“According to state health officials, the 13-year-old girl was never immunized and was infected with measles after traveling through Europe,” WCBS said.

Government data shows that more than 77 percent of American toddlers have gotten their shots, but that leaves almost one-fourth of all toddlers unvaccinated against diseases like measles, mumps and rubella. While some, including parents of autistic children, have suggested a tie between the vaccine for those three diseases (the MMR vaccine) and autism, scientific studies have never shown a link.

The coalition of doctors’ groups, known as the Immunization Alliance, has endorsed a Call to Action to enlist health professionals, the public, the media and the government in supporting immunizations.

Reference: What is autism?


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