Feb 12 2009

Autism Court Ruling – Vaccines Didn’t Cause Autism

The much awaited decision on the first test case of the Autism Omnibus was just announced – and it’s good news. They have found that the petitioners failed to make their case that vaccines caused their children’s autism, and that therefore compensation was not appropriate.

The Autism Omnibus hearings were set up to evaluate for thousands of petitions for compensation under the vaccine injury compensation program. This is a program set up in the US to compensate those who suffer adverse effects from vaccines, and it is paid for by a tax on all vaccines. This is a sensible system because it allows manufacturers to produce much needed vaccines without risking bankruptcy over fad pseudoscientific accusations – like those that took down Dow Chemical. It also more quickly and fairly compensated families, which is fair given that vaccines are somewhat compulsory in the US (although in most states it is all too easy to get an exemption).

These cases arise out of the now scientifically discredited notion that certain vaccines or something in vaccines (like thimerosal) is linked to autism. I have written extensively about this controversy, and what we can say at this time is that the scientific evidence is solidly against any link.

We have been watching these cases closely as they constitute a review of this evidence. It is not a scientific review, but rather a legal one. This can go either way. On the one hand, courts have rules of evidence and when the evidence is given a proper hearing and it strongly points in one direction, that usually becomes clear. Also, this is a hearing before special judges – not a jury whose emotions can be manipulated.

On the other hand, the standard of evidence for the compensation program has been significantly lowered recently. To make it easier to compensate families, they only have to provide a plausible theory of injury – not evidence that the theory is correct.

Here is a thorough summary of the process over at Neurodiversity.

So while we were confident that the evidence clearly favored no link between autism and vaccines, there remained an outside chance that this lower bar of evidence might have led to a decision that “compensation is appropriate.” This would not have meant the evidence supported a link, but certainly would have been spun that way by the anti-vaccine crowd.

The decisions that were published today are therefore both a relief that the system worked, and a thorough smackdown of the anti-vaccine claims.

There were three test cases decided on today, each one representing a theory of harm – that MMR alone causes autism, that thimerosal alone causes autism, and that a combination of MMR and thimerosal causes autism. The decisions published today only affect the thimerosal + MMR theory of causation.

Special Master Hastings wrote the decision on the Cedillo case, which alleged that a combination of MMR and thimerosal caused her autism:

I conclude that the petitioners have not demonstrated that they are entitled to an award on Michelle’s behalf. I will set forth the reasons for that conclusion in detail below. However, at this point I will briefly summarize the reasons for my conclusion.

The petitioners in this case have advanced a causation theory that has several parts, including contentions  that thimerosal-containing vaccines can cause immune dysfunction, that the MMR vaccine can cause autism, and  that the MMR vaccine can cause chronic gastrointestinal dysfunction. However, as to each of those issues, I concluded that the evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ contentions. The expert witnesses presented by the respondent were far better qualified, far more experienced, and far more persuasive than the petitioners’ experts, concerning most of the key points. The numerous medical studies concerning these issues, performed by medical scientists worldwide, have come down strongly against the petitioners’ contentions. Considering all of the evidence, I found that the petitioners have failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to causing immune dysfunction, or that the MMR vaccine can contribute to causing either autism or gastrointestinal dysfunction. I further conclude that while Michelle Cedillo has tragically suffered from autism and other severe conditions, the petitioners have also failed to demonstrate that her vaccinations played any role at all in causing those problems.

It’s good to know that overwhelming solid scientific evidence still counts for something.

Writing the decision for the second case, Hazlehurst, Special Master Campbell-Smith wrote:

Having carefully and fully considered the evidence, the undersigned concludes that the combination of the thimerosal-containing vaccines and the MMR vaccine are not causal factors in the development of autism and therefore, could not have contributed to the development of Yates’ autism. The weight of the presented evidence that is scientifically reliable and methodologically sound does not support petitioners’ claim. Petitioners have failed to establish entitlement to compensation under the Vaccine Act.

And, writing the decision for the third case, Snyder, Special Master Vowell wrote:

After considering the record as a whole, I hold that petitioners have failed to establish by preponderant evidence that Colten’s condition was caused or significantly aggravated by a vaccine or any component thereof. The evidence presented was both voluminous and extraordinarily complex. After careful consideration of all of the evidence, it was abundantly clear that petitioners’ theories of causation were speculative and unpersuasive. Respondent’s experts were far more qualified, bettersupported by the weight of scientific research and authority, and simply morepersuasive on nearly every point in contention. Because of pervasive quality control problems at a now-defunct laboratory that tested a key piece of evidence, petitioners could not reliably demonstrate the presence of a persistent measles virus in Colten’s central nervous system. Petitioners failed to establish that measles virus can cause autism or that it did so in Colten. They failed to demonstrate that amount of ethylmercury in TCVs causes immune system suppression or dysregulation. They failed to show that Colten’s immune system was dysregulated. Although Colten’s condition markedly improved between his diagnosis and the hearing, the experimental treatments he received cannot be logically or scientifically linked to the theories of causation. Given the advice that petitioners received from a treating physician, Colten’s parents brought this action in good faith and upon a reasonable basis. However, they have failed to demonstrate vaccine causation of Colten’s condition by a preponderance of the evidence. Therefore, I deny their petition for compensation.

One, two, three strikes, your out!

The decisions reflect the overall impression of the scientific community – the theories behind the notion that vaccines cause autism are speculative and the evidence is strongly against them. Also, the experts who have looked at the evidence and have concluded that vaccines do not cause autism simply know what they are talking about, while the anti-vaccine experts were unimpressive and not persuasive.

This is a solid victory, much as the Dover decision (which thoroughly went through the scientific arguments for evolution and the nonsense of Intelligent Design) was for science and the teaching of evolution.  We can now expect desperate spin from the anti-vaccine crowd. That should be fun (while also depressing) to watch. And, just as with ID, it is unlikely that even this solid trouncing will end anti-vaccine pseudoscience.

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