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

"The evidence presented was both voluminous and extraordinarily complex," Vowell wrote in her ruling. But she added that there was little doubt about the right answer: The experts contending there is no link between autism and vaccines "were far more qualified, better supported by the weight of scientific research and authority, and simply more persuasive on nearly every point in contention."

In the third test case, special master Patricia Campbell-Smith heard a claim by Rolf and Angela Hazlehurst of Jackson, Tenn., parents of William Yates Hazlehurst. They charged that the MMR vaccine or a component of it had caused "regressive autism" in their son. Agreeing with the other special masters, Campbell-Smith said that she was "moved as a person and as a parent by the Hazlehursts' account," but that their evidence fell short.

The three cases involved some 5,000 pages of transcripts, 939 medical articles and 50 expert reports, and the three decisions ran to more than 650 pages altogether.

The ruling was welcomed in statements by the Department of Health and Human Services and the American Medical Association.

"This is a real victory for children and a great day for science," said Philadelphia pediatrician and vaccine expert Paul Offit, in a statement issued by the vaccine advocacy group Every Child by Two. "I hope that this decision will finally put parents' fears to rest and that we can once again concentrate on protecting children from the resurgence of deadly vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and whooping cough."

The vaccine court was set up by Congress in 1986 as part of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program to compensate people who suffer the occasional side effects of vaccines. Rather than have victims sue vaccine-makers in civil court -- potentially putting them out of business and jeopardizing a major component of the country's public health infrastructure -- the court has a "no-fault" system that requires victims to prove to a special master only that vaccines harmed them, and not that anyone intentionally caused the harm.

It is unclear what effect the ruling will have on the determined grass-roots effort that insists there is a connection between vaccines and autism, a movement that has been embraced by several celebrities and politicians. In June 2005, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote an article in Rolling Stone charging a "government cover-up of a mercury/autism scandal."

Two years later, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) told fellow members of Congress: "I believe, as do many credible scientists and researchers, that the clear correlation between the dramatic rise in the number of autism cases, and the rapid expansion of the childhood vaccination schedule during that 20-year period, points to the mercury-based preservative thimerosal -- routinely used in pediatric vaccines during the period -- as a contributing factor to our country's literal epidemic of autism. In fact, I firmly believe my own grandson became autistic after receiving nine shots."

James Moody, a lawyer advising the plaintiffs and director of SafeMinds, a research and advocacy think tank that endorses a vaccine-autism link, predicted that the autism cases would be appealed and eventually wind up in civil court, where plaintiffs could make their cases to a jury and get access to government documents.

"The government does not fund the science to show a connection between vaccines and autism, and the courts say there isn't enough evidence to show a connection," Moody said. "When the vaccine court says you haven't met the standard of evidence, that is a call for more science, not that this controversy is at an end."

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