Sep 01 2010

Appeals Court Rejects Autism-Vaccine Link

This is a quick update on the Autism Omnibus hearings – representative cases heard before a special court to decide if there is any credible evidence to conclude that autism may be a vaccine injury. After hearing exhaustive testimony by all sides, the special masters determined that the evidence does not support a link between autism and vaccines.

One of the cases heard was the Cedillo case, which was used as the test case for the theory that the MMR vaccine plus exposure to thimerosal can trigger brain damage that looks clinically like autism. In February of 2009 the court rejected the claim that Michelle Cedillo’s autism was caused by vaccines. No only was the theory of causation without scientific backing, evidence was presented to show that Michelle Cedillo demonstrated early symptoms of autism prior to ever receiving the MMR vaccine.

In fact the Cedillo case is representative of a fact that scientific research is increasingly demonstrating – that subtle signs of autism are present prior to parents noticing that there is a problem and long before formal diagnosis. The consensus of evidence is that signs of autism appear between 6-12 months of age, and maybe earlier in some cases. Meanwhile, the first MMR vaccine is given at 12 months. Since causes must precede effects, this fact alone is fatal to the MMR-autism hypothesis.

After being rejected by the Autism Omnibus special court, the Cedillos appealed, and their appeal was recently rejected by a federal appeals court (one notch below the Supreme Court). The Examiner reports:

The federal appeals court found that the special master’s decision was justified under a U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires trial judges to determine whether an expert witness’ theory about causation is testable, has an acceptable error rate, and has been peer reviewed and published.

The appeals panel also held that the special master could instead rely on the testimony of a U.S. government expert witness who argued that the testing done by laboratory engaged by the Cedillos was  “severely flawed, and should not be considered reliable.”

The Cedillos report that they are “considering their options” to take their case further.

In general, when complex scientific cases like this are tried in court, with an exhaustive review of the evidence and rules of evidence and argument that preclude reliance on logical fallacies, the outcome is generally favorable to science. We saw this with the intelligent design – Kitzmiller case, and here again with the Autism Omnibus hearings. There is always the risk that a case will be decided on obscure legal grounds, rather than the merits of the science. But I am glad to see that at least occasionally science rules.

Addendum:

After posting this entry, another related news item came to my attention. In the UK a court has awarded 90 thousand pounds to a family whose child (now 18) was alleged injured by the MMR vaccine. Orac has an excellent discussion of the issue. He makes many salient points, which I have also made in previous posts.

Specifically – no one denies that there are risks to vaccines and they occasionally cause serious side effects, although serious effects are rare. Also, compensation for side effects is appropriate. It also needs to be noted that the legal threshold for concluding a possible link between a vaccine and injury is much lower than the scientific threshold, and this is not unreasonable.

In this particular case the decision seems to have been based largely on the temporal association between the MMR and onset of symptoms (which occurred 10 days later). From a scientific point of view, this absolutely can be a coincidence, but from a legal point of view it was sufficient to award compensation.

It also has to be noted that the child in this case does not have autism. He suffers from seizures and mental retardation, but not autism.

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