In a major legal setback for parents of children with autism, a special court today ruled that vaccines do not cause the disorder.
The U.S. Court of Claims—set up by Congress as part of the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program—in long-awaited decisions said that years of scientific evidence indicated that there was no link between the measles–mumps–rubella (MMR) vaccine and the mysterious neurological condition.
"It was abundantly clear that petitioners' theories of causation were speculative and unpersuasive," the court ruled in one of three test cases considered. "The weight of scientific research and authority [was] simply more persuasive on nearly every point in contention."
The ruling marked a defeat for families who allege that childhood vaccinations trigger the disorder, which is characterized by cognitive deficiencies and symptoms ranging from antisocial (not responding to one's name and/or avoiding eye contact) to obsessive, repetitive behavior.
The special panel two years ago began reviewing evidence of a potential nexus between vaccines and autism. One of the major suspects: thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative once prevalent in childhood vaccines. But the three judges, or special masters as they're technically called, were not swayed by arguments that vaccines are to blame for the disorder.
The ruling puts in doubt thousands of cases claiming the link filed in the vaccine court in recent years. To simplify the process, the court initially decided to hear the three cases that they decided today, each of which suggested a different way that vaccines might have caused autism.
Today's decisions come amid mounting fears about potential side effects, most notably autism, of vaccines. The controversy has prompted some parents to shun routine childhood shots, leading to concerns about a resurgence of diseases such as measles and other childhood maladies once considered banished.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that it hoped "the determination by the special masters will help reassure parents that vaccines do not cause autism."
But the National Vaccine Information Center, a consumer group that questions vaccine safety, said the decision was unlikely to assuage parents convinced that vaccines are a culprit.
"I think it is a mistake to conclude that, because these few test cases were denied compensation, it's been decided vaccines don't play any role in regressive autism," Barbara Loe Fisher, the center's president, told the Associated Press, calling for more studies into a possible connection.
The most popular scientific theory about the genesis of autism is that there are flaws in several genes passed down through generations of a family that culminate to predispose a child to the disorder, especially if he or she is exposed to certain environmental factors such as toxic chemicals or a lack of oxygen at birth.
(Last year, we covered the case of Hannah Poling, which also involved autism and vaccines and resulted in a settlement for her parents.)
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