A Radical Behaviorist

Observations and comments about autism, behavior, and learning.

The Vaccines Cause Autism Hypotheses Lose in Court

5,000 petitioners have claimed that vaccines have caused their child's autism

As has been mentioned previously on this blog, there have been numerous sound scientific studies into the possibility of a link between vaccines and autism. Both the notion that thimerosal, a preservative previously present in many vaccines, can cause autism and that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine injures the gut and causes autism, have been thoroughly studied. None of this research shows any evidence that vaccines are linked in any way to autism; however, the belief persists in the public domain that vaccines cause autism. This belief has also been addressed in court through the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Over 5,000 petitioners have claimed that vaccines have caused their child's autism. Given the large number of claims and the homogeneity of the claims, the Office of the Special Masters, which oversees the Vaccine Court, was ordered in July of 2002 by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to hear the strongest cases to test the validity of the putative links between vaccines and autism. These hearings commenced in June of 2007.

The first three cases (Cedillo v HHS; Hazelhurst v HHS; and Snyder v HHS) that were selected for the hearings were ruled on last year. The main thrust of the causation theories reviewed during these first test cases were: 1) that the MMR vaccine in combination with thimerosal-containing vaccines cause autism; 2) that thimerosal vaccines cause immune dysfunction; and 3) that the MMR vaccine causes autism or autistic enterocolitis. Each of the three cases was heard by a separate Special Master. The judicial process was just completed a month ago with each of the cases and their appeals being dismissed. An exceptionally thorough detailing of these cases, including links to all of the transcripts of the hearings, has been compiled by Kathleen Seidel, the mother of a child with autism. These are available at http://neurodiversity.com/.

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In Cedillo v HHS, the "Special Master George Hastings found that the petitioners had failed to demonstrate that either the MMR vaccine or thimerosal-containing vaccines can harm infant immune systems, cause gastrointestinal dysfunction, or cause autism; that they had failed to demonstrate that a vaccine reaction had harmed their child's immune system, caused her gastrointestinal problems, or caused her to become autistic; and that they had failed to demonstrate that an MMR vaccination caused her mental retardation or seizure disorder. Additionally, the Special Master deemed unreliable the testing the petitioners offered to show the presence of the measles virus in their own child and in other autistic children" (http://neurodiversity.com/weblog/article/195/). The causation theory forwarded by the petitioners "takes a huge leap from the existing evidence, by asserting that, since it is known that autism is not 100% genetic, and that some prenatal exposures seem to contribute to autism, we can therefore infer that the MMR vaccine is another environmental factor that can contribute to the causation of autism... Moreover, it seems to me that the three accepted points concerning the causation of autism... make the petitioners general causation theory seem unlikely, in two ways. First, we know for certain that genetic factors and prenatal exposures can cause autism, while the evidence concerning the possibility of causation by postnatal factors is weak... This point, of course, certainly does not rule out the possibility of causation by a particular postnatal factor, such as the measles virus, but it does make one cautious about attributing causation to any postnatal factor. Secondly, ... autopsy studies indicate that autism results from abnormal brain development prior to birth. That finding is consistent with either genetic causation or causation by early prenatal environmental exposures, but it is inconsistent with causation by a vaccine that is received during the second year of life" (http://neurodiversity.com/weblog/article/183/).

In expressing his opinion on the Cedillo case, Special Master Hastings expressed extreme sympathy with the situation the family faced with their daughter's condition. He also stated that the Cedillo family had been mislead by a bevy of charlatans who posed as experts when, in fact, they either had scant qualifications to testify or were basing their testimony on faulty assumptions. For example,

A hotly contested issue in this case is whether the measles virus detection tests performed by the Unigenetics Laboratory in Dublin, Ireland produced reliable results. Petitioners' expert witnesses, Dr. Marcel Kinsbourne and Dr. Arthur Krigsman, acknowledged that their opinion on causation depended upon the existence of a reliable laboratory finding of persistent vaccine-strain measles in the body of the person tested. Thus, absent evidence of persistent vaccine-strain measles in [the child's] body, Dr. Kinsbourne and Dr. Krigsman cannot show that the MMR vaccine caused [her] autism or her inflammatory
bowel disease...

Weighing all of the evidence, the Special Master concluded that the Unigenetics testing for the detection of measles virus was not reliable. The Special Master emphasized that other researchers had been unable to replicate the Unigenetics findings. He found it significant that Unigenetics had failed to employ "sequencing" in its testing procedures. He was troubled by the many problems with Unigenetics' procedures, facilities, and equipment. Among these were the failure to employ "blinding" procedures so that the laboratory technicians would not know whether the samples being tested were from the patient group of interest. These procedures are regarded as "critical" to prevent conscious or subconscious bias from affecting test results. The Special Master found the efforts of [petitioners' experts] Dr. Hepner and Dr. Kennedy to defend the Unigenetics work largely ineffective. Their testimony was "too summary and nonspecific to answer the criticisms leveled by [respondent's experts] Drs. Bustin and Rima, which were specific and detailed." Moreover, even the Unigenetics' test results failed to identify any vaccine-strain measles, which would have been critical to linking the MMR vaccine to autism or inflammatory bowel disease. Petitioners needed to show that the measles virus allegedly detected in [the child's] tissue sample derived from the MMR vaccine, rather than the natural, "wild" form of measles virus, but they did not. On balance, the Special Master concluded that Respondent's experts, Drs. Ward, Bustin, Rima, and MacDonald, had "vastly more experience and academic credentials" than Petitioners' expert, Dr. Hepner, and that Dr. Bustin's PCR experience and Dr. Rima's measles virus experience far exceeded Dr. Kennedy's.
(http://neurodiversity.com/weblog/article/195/)

The Cedillos like many other families have been misled, primarily by people who solely drew their income from testifying in court or from pushing theories about autism and autism treatment that have no basis in scientific evidence. The Cedillo family not only has a child with autism and a number of concerning medical problems but they have been duped. The persons who have the most to gain in these hearings are not the families but the lawyers and testifying experts whose fees are paid regardless of the outcome of the trials and the validity of their service. One of the lawyers for the Cedillos was Clifford Shoemaker. Shoemaker has made over $250,000 on 15 cases that were dismissed (http://neurodiversity.com/weblog/article/149/). The Cedillos and thousands of other families have been swayed by baseless rhetoric and anecdotal evidence. The amount of time and money that has been invested in pursuing the theories that vaccines cause autism and the litigation that has been pursued is immense. Had these funds been applied to providing services shown to help children with autism, the children and their families would be in a much better situation now.

Now, the vaccine court has ruled on three more cases (Mead v HHS; King v HHS; Dwyer v HHS).  These three test cases were chosen to test solely the thimerosal causes autism hypothesis.  They were chosen as the best cases.  The rulings were again, against the petitioners.  In the Mead case the Special Master that the theories forwarded by the Petitioners and their experts was "scientifically unsupportable."  The Special Masters in the King and Dwyer cases, while expressing great sympathy for the families, felt that the Petitioners had been subtaintially misled by their "experts."  These charlatans who peddle their wares at great expense, and sometimes with no direct contact with the patients, base their business model on convincing parents that vaccines are the cause of autism.  Then they suggest that the only way to recover their children is to subject them to "treatments" based upon this mythology.

One of the most important aspects of these rulings are that the vaccine court requires a very low criterion of evidence to judge in favor of Petitioners.  This court does not establish the basis of a decision on establishing that the Petitioners prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their claim is valid.  It is only required that the evidence lean in favor of them.  This is sometimes referred to as 50% + a feather.  However, in all six cases thus far the evidence has been a slam dunk against the claims.  These decisions will, no doubt, not change the minds of the true believers in this mythology.  Like creationists, Holocaust deniers, 9-11 truthers, and zealots, evidence does not matter, only their beliefs.

 

Bill Ahearn is Director of Research at the New England Center for Children, a private nonprofit educational facility for children with autism.

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