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Court Rules Against Vaccines-Autism Claims

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Scientists have been saying for years that there is no link between childhood vaccines and autism. Some parents have refused to believe that. Today, a blow for those families - a federal court agreed with the scientists.

Here's NPR's Jon Hamilton.

JON HAMILTON: About 5,000 families have been waiting for today's ruling from a special court set up by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The special court was asked to rule on three test cases to help decide whether kids with autism should be included in the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Today's ruling makes that unlikely. In all three cases the court ruled against the families. Rebecca Estepp has a son with autism. She's also the national manager of a group called, Talk About Curing Autism.

Ms. REBECCA ESTEPP (National Manager, Talk About Curing Autism): Today is tough. I've tried to stay optimistic all of these years. We filed our case in 2002. And I thought our best shot in the government was through the judicial branch. And this is really a blow today.

HAMILTON: Scientists who listened to testimony from the proceedings weren't surprised by the ruling. Roy Richard Grinker is an anthropologist at the George Washington University in Washington D.C., who does research on autism. He also has a teenage daughter with the disorder. Grinker says that during the proceedings, the government called on many of the world's best known autism scientists. The plaintiffs on the other hand…

Professor ROY RICHARD GRINKER (Anthropology, George Washington University): Called chemists and a pediatrician with limited research experience - people who were not internationally recognized as people who'd a lot of experience either treating or researching autism.

HAMILTON: The parents testify that their children became autistic only after being vaccinated. But Grinker says the government's scientific witnesses found evidence to the contrary.

Prof. GRINKER: When you look at the home movies and you look at the clinical records, as the witnesses did for the government, you see repeatedly that there were major issues prior to the vaccines, either a child not making eye contact or not communicating, not being social, having repetitive behaviors and so on.

HAMILTON: The families' case depended on two theories - the first was that measles virus in the MMR vaccine could trigger autism in some children. It was an idea put forth in a paper by a British researcher named Andrew Wakefield in the late 1990's. But during the vaccine court's investigations, most of Wakefield's co-authors retracted the paper. Paul Offitt, a vaccine expert at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia says the retraction came after an embarrassing revelation.

Dr. PAUL OFFITT (Vaccine Expert, Philadelphia Children's Hospital): They did it because they found that he had, in fact, been given $800,000 by a personal injury lawyer to basically launder these plaintiff's claims through a medical journal.

HAMILTON: The plaintiff's other major theory was that a vaccine preservative called, thimerosal, which contains mercury, was causing autism. But Offitt says that just before the vaccine court got going in 2002…

Dr. OFFITT: Thimerosal was removed from all vaccines given to young children and despite that there has, if anything, been, over the last eight years, an increase in autism.

HAMILTON: The vaccine court is still set to rule on three more autism test cases. But Stephen Sugarman, a law professor at Berkeley, doesn't expect a different result.

Professor STEPHEN SUGARMAN (Law, University of California, Berkeley): The claims under the vaccine compensation program, now, are pretty clearly doomed.

HAMILTON: Sugarman says families can now try other courts, but the legal standards there will be even tougher than in the vaccine court.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.
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