Do vaccines cause autism? The idea has never had much support from scientists, who tell us there is no empirical support for the claim. Lawyers, on the other hand, are divided on the question.
In a remarkable series of court hearings which started last summer in the U.S. Court of Claims’ Office of Special Masters in Washington, D.C., lawyers and judges will be sorting through evidence and testimony to determine if the parents of alleged “vaccine damage” children deserve compensation. An enterprising reporter is sure to find a petitioning parent nearby, since the claimants include nearly 5,000 children.
But before you leap into vaccine court, there’s a whole lot you’ll need to know. You can start by reading Tragically Wrong in the latest Hoover Digest. Arthur Allen, the author of Vaccine, tells us the back story to the dubious vaccine-autism connection, starting with Dr. Andrew Wakefield, an ethically-challenged UK physician who fled to the United States in the wake of his discredited Lancet study:
The vaccine-autism case had its genesis in 1996, when a British legal firm approached gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield of London’s Royal Free Hospital and asked him to examine a group of children whose parents were suing the pharmaceutical giant Merck. The parents alleged that after being vaccinated with MMR, a vaccine that contains weakened measles, mumps, and rubella viruses, their children had developed the distressing constellation of repetitive movements and language deficiencies known as autism. Wakefield had published a paper that hypothesized a link between MMR vaccination and inflammatory bowel disease, and the children in the 1996 case had an assortment of bowel problems as well as autism.
A year later, Wakefield filed a patent for a single-valent measles vaccine— a shot useful only should public confidence falter in the existing three-in-one MMR vaccine. Then, in February 1998, Wakefield took a step that would cause just such a dip in public confidence: he published a report in the prestigious journal Lancet of twelve autistic children with severe gastrointestinal problems, eight of whom were reported to have become ill after MMR shots. Wakefield’s hypothesis was that the measles component of the vaccine had infected the children’s intestines, causing them to leak poisons into the blood that caused brain damage. Wakefield did not mention the litigation or his patent application to the Lancet or his colleagues. When the true context of the study was revealed by a British investigative journalist six years later, the Lancet withdrew part of his paper.
In a perfect world, science would trump emotion on important matters of public health. But vaccine court is a far from perfect venue for deciding all over again what science determined years ago.
Transcripts and recordings of the July vaccine court hearing can be found here.