U.S. Court Finds No Link Between Vaccines, Autism

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2009

A special federal court ruled yesterday that vaccines do not cause autism and that thousands of families with autistic children are not entitled to compensation, delivering a major blow to an international movement that has tried for years to link childhood immunizations with the devastating disorder.

The ruling closes one chapter in a long feud that has pitted families with autistic children against the bulk of the scientific establishment. Those who believe passionately that routine childhood shots are to blame for the rising toll of autism feel they are locked in a David-and-Goliath struggle against vaccine manufacturers, corrupt scientists, federal agencies and the mainstream media. It remains to be seen whether yesterday's ruling will end the controversy -- or be seen as just more evidence of what some call a conspiracy.

The vast majority of credible scientific studies have shown -- and all federal health agencies have strenuously argued -- that there is no connection between vaccines and autism. And public health officials have repeatedly warned that fewer immunizations will endanger children's lives.

Nevertheless, concerns about vaccines such as the "MMR" shot, which protects children against measles, mumps and rubella, have grown so widespread that some parents are choosing to forgo vaccinations. About one in 12 children does not receive the MMR vaccine in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Yesterday's ruling involved three separate cases, each of which explored a different mechanism by which vaccines might cause autism. Working independently, three special masters acting as judges in the federal "vaccine court" issued separate but similar rulings that found no evidence that the vaccines had caused the children's disorders.

The decisions are especially telling because the rules of the vaccine court did not require the plaintiffs to prove their cases with scientific certainty -- all the families needed to show was a preponderance of the evidence, or "50 percent and a hair." To the extent that these cases are representative of the claims made by some 4,800 other families seeking compensation, those cases would appear to be on shaky ground.

Ruling on a case brought by Theresa and Michael Cedillo of Yuma, Ariz., special master George L. Hastings used italicized words for emphasis and wrote that his extensive analysis of the evidence showed that the Cedillos' vaccine-autism theory was "very wrong."

"Unfortunately, the Cedillos have been misled by physicians who are guilty, in my view, of gross medical misjudgment," Hastings wrote.

The Cedillos contend that their daughter Michelle abruptly fell sick a week after she received an MMR shot when she was about 16 months old. Today, at age 14, she requires round-the-clock care, suffers from seizures, has lost nearly all her vision and has constant abdominal pain.

"We are terribly disappointed by the decision," Theresa Cedillo said in an interview. Referring to Michelle, she said, "I feel she was vaccine-injured and should be entitled to compensation."

The rulings are subject to appeal, and Kevin Conway, a lawyer representing the Cedillos, said there was no question of throwing in the towel.

In another test case, special master Denise K. Vowell heard charges brought by Kathryn and Joseph Snyder of Port Orange, Fla., who argued that the MMR vaccine, or a mercury-based preservative in it called thimerosal, had triggered in their son Colten pervasive developmental disorder -- part of the "autism spectrum."

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