Court Rules Against Vaccines-Autism Claims

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The U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled Thursday against families who claimed a link between vaccines and autism. The claimants say they should be compensated under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Doctors are praising the ruling.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Scientists have been saying for years that there is no link between childhood vaccines and autism. Some parents have refused to believe that. Today, a blow for those families - a federal court agreed with the scientists.

Here's NPR's Jon Hamilton.

JON HAMILTON: About 5,000 families have been waiting for today's ruling from a special court set up by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The special court was asked to rule on three test cases to help decide whether kids with autism should be included in the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Today's ruling makes that unlikely. In all three cases the court ruled against the families. Rebecca Estepp has a son with autism. She's also the national manager of a group called, Talk About Curing Autism.

Ms. REBECCA ESTEPP (National Manager, Talk About Curing Autism): Today is tough. I've tried to stay optimistic all of these years. We filed our case in 2002. And I thought our best shot in the government was through the judicial branch. And this is really a blow today.

HAMILTON: Scientists who listened to testimony from the proceedings weren't surprised by the ruling. Roy Richard Grinker is an anthropologist at the George Washington University in Washington D.C., who does research on autism. He also has a teenage daughter with the disorder. Grinker says that during the proceedings, the government called on many of the world's best known autism scientists. The plaintiffs on the other hand…

Professor ROY RICHARD GRINKER (Anthropology, George Washington University): Called chemists and a pediatrician with limited research experience - people who were not internationally recognized as people who'd a lot of experience either treating or researching autism.

HAMILTON: The parents testify that their children became autistic only after being vaccinated. But Grinker says the government's scientific witnesses found evidence to the contrary.

Prof. GRINKER: When you look at the home movies and you look at the clinical records, as the witnesses did for the government, you see repeatedly that there were major issues prior to the vaccines, either a child not making eye contact or not communicating, not being social, having repetitive behaviors and so on.

HAMILTON: The families' case depended on two theories - the first was that measles virus in the MMR vaccine could trigger autism in some children. It was an idea put forth in a paper by a British researcher named Andrew Wakefield in the late 1990's. But during the vaccine court's investigations, most of Wakefield's co-authors retracted the paper. Paul Offitt, a vaccine expert at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia says the retraction came after an embarrassing revelation.

Dr. PAUL OFFITT (Vaccine Expert, Philadelphia Children's Hospital): They did it because they found that he had, in fact, been given $800,000 by a personal injury lawyer to basically launder these plaintiff's claims through a medical journal.

HAMILTON: The plaintiff's other major theory was that a vaccine preservative called, thimerosal, which contains mercury, was causing autism. But Offitt says that just before the vaccine court got going in 2002…

Dr. OFFITT: Thimerosal was removed from all vaccines given to young children and despite that there has, if anything, been, over the last eight years, an increase in autism.

HAMILTON: The vaccine court is still set to rule on three more autism test cases. But Stephen Sugarman, a law professor at Berkeley, doesn't expect a different result.

Professor STEPHEN SUGARMAN (Law, University of California, Berkeley): The claims under the vaccine compensation program, now, are pretty clearly doomed.

HAMILTON: Sugarman says families can now try other courts, but the legal standards there will be even tougher than in the vaccine court.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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Autistic Children Ineligible For Vaccine Funds

A federal court has issued a ruling that families claiming their child's autism is caused by vaccines will not be eligible for a previously established program to compensate people injured by vaccines.

The special court set up by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims ruled that neither a preservative used in vaccines nor the vaccines themselves could be linked to autism.

The ruling, which involved three test cases, affects thousands of children whose parents have filed claims with the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Lawyers representing the parents had argued that the preservative thimerosal, which contains mercury, could damage the brains of some children.

They also said that the MMR vaccine, which contains no thimerosal, could cause autism by provoking a dangerous immune response. But government experts countered that more than a dozen large studies have found no connection between vaccines and autism.

Rebecca Estepp, parent support and media relations manager with Talk About Curing Autism, a group representing families of people with autism, believes vaccines caused autism in her son, who is now 11. Her son is among those who have filed through the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

"I'm devastated, and I'm trying to figure out how in the world this decision came about today," Estepp says.

During a telephone press conference today, Paul Offitt, the head of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and an international expert on vaccines, called the decision "a great day for science and American children." He said more than a dozen scientific studies have already shown no link between vaccines and autism, and he was pleased that the court agreed.

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