February 12th, 2009
01:03 PM ET

Court rules vaccines not to blame for autism

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

There is a special court, known colloquially as a vaccine court. It is a place where judges called “special masters,” who are legal experts, not medical doctors, hear claims about vaccine injuries. It’s been around since the late 80s, in part prompted by the scare over the DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) vaccine possibly causing injuries. If the court finds that an injury was likely caused by a vaccine, it can make a monetary award. For example, a few years ago, there was a case of optic neuritis after the tetanus vaccine. Other awards were given for fibromyalgia after the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine; transverse myelitis after the HiB (Haemophilus influenzae type B) vaccine; and Guillain-Barre and MS after the hepatitis B vaccine.

Many people started paying attention to the court after the federal government last year awarded damages to the family of Hannah Poling, conceding that Hannah was injured by a vaccine, causing her autism-like symptoms. (Read about Hannah’s case here) According to the Department of Justice, more than 1,500 people have been paid in excess of $1.18 billion since the inception of the program in 1988.

There is no question there is lots of money at play here. For more than 20 years now, the program has been funded by an excise tax of 75 cents on every purchased dose of covered vaccine. And, with today’s decision, some of the big questions about vaccines and autism are being addressed. It is worth noting the standard the court was using allowed for the petitioners (the parents of the children with autism) to demonstrate “biologic plausibility” as opposed to direct cause and effect. Scientifically, biological plausibility is an easier standard to meet. (Read about vaccine court now).

While this can by no means be a complete overview of the hundreds of pages that composed the ruling (read the decisions here), it is safe to say that the court found no biological plausibility of a connection between autism and either the MMR vaccine, or the combination of MMR vaccine and thimerosal-containing vaccines: no awards will be granted in any of these test cases. We spent some time with Michelle Cedillo, one of the children represented in the test cases last year (meet her here). You will no doubt hear a lot more about this in the days to come. Within the world of autism and vaccines, this is a huge deal and a major ruling.

Couple of points: Remember that thimerosal is a mercury-derived preservative that was present in many childhood vaccines that did not contain a live virus (for example, the MMR vaccine never contained thimerosal). Nowadays thimerosal has been removed from or reduced to trace amounts in all vaccines that are routinely recommended for children six years of age and younger, with the exception of inactivated influenza vaccine. In case you are curious, a preservative-free version of the inactivated influenza vaccine (contains trace amounts of thimerosal) is available in limited supply at this time for use in infants, children and pregnant women. And, in the interest of clarity, vaccines with trace amounts of thimerosal contain 1 microgram or less of mercury per dose. (Learn more about vaccines here)

On page 278 of the decision in of the cases, Snyder v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, the statements even get a little snide. The special master, Denice K. Vowell, wrote “to conclude that Colten’s condition was the result of his MMR vaccine, an objective observer would have to emulate Lewis Carroll’s White Queen and be able to believe the six impossible (or, at least highly improbable) things before breakfast.” She goes on to say “the families of ASD and the court have waited in vain for adequate evidence to support the autism–MMR hypothesis.”

So, do you feel like you are gazing through the “looking-glass?”

I hope you get a chance to click on the links above and read the rulings. You will find that not all the experts agreed with one another and the evidence is worth reading. After that, I’m eager to hear what you think.

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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soundoff (213 Responses)
  1. Doc_A

    Mrs. Snyder, we are all sorry about your son's condition. When we are angry, it is natural to look for a something (or someone) to blame. Or what we could've done differently. But sometimes tragedies (illnesses, accidents, deaths) simply happen for no reason, or at least for no reason that we have control over. Although I am sure they've told you that countless times, I hope that some day you will be able to hear it. You have done nothing wrong by vaccinating your son. Blaming it on vaccine is not unlike the way people used to blame for autism those kids' mothers' supposed lack of attention to the children. Yet neither has anything to do with this illness, at least not according to the available truly scientific evidence.

    February 23, 2009 at 15:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. doug

    "Nowadays thimerosal has been removed from or reduced to trace amounts in all vaccines that are routinely recommended for children six years of age and younger, with the exception of inactivated influenza vaccine"

    Question- If thimerosal is safe then why was it removed from vaccines?

    March 12, 2010 at 16:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Paul

    Why remove thimerosal from vaccines? Superstition, reinforced by lawsuits. And because we now can; technology for preserving vaccines has inched forward some since people first started using thimerosal as a preservative.

    The arguments about autism and vaccines never cease to amaze me... The original research has been retracted, and the person behind the research is now known to be tainted (paid by lawyers suing vaccine companies). But the general attitude of the true believers seems to be, "Don't confuse me with the facts!" And that's sad, because their attitude actually inhibits the discovery of the true causes of autism...

    March 12, 2010 at 18:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Randy Crawford

    I know from personal experience, and from using myself as a human guinea pig, that multiple frequent injections of MMR and mercurics are not only harmless, they are beneficial– specifically to ameliorate autoimmune disease. I have had dozens and dozens of MMR shots (along with other vaccines) including every day for weeks at a time. MMR alone, or with varicella vaccines and/or tetanus-diphtheria-thimerosal and/or yellow fever vaccine and/or wild-type viruses distracts the immune system by providing an alternative target (an example of the hygiene hypothesis). Parents with autistic kids are understandably anxious to find a cause and a cure for autism, but lashing out at innocent vaccines like MMR, or mercurics, only distracts attention from focusing on the real culprit. Until the innocent vaccines are ignored as they should be, and until the real culprit is pursued and identified, thousands of kids will continue to suffer needlessly. Grieving family members can hang an innocent man, but that does nothing to stop the real villain. Randy Crawford 3701 Second St. #10 Coralville, Iowa 52241 (319)400-2837 randycrawford52241@hotmail.com

    March 15, 2010 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Cliff

    The most recent comment posts in this blog are problematic. While I agree that it's easy to blame vaccines for causing Autism, the posters are missing a very important point.

    Many parents of autistic children have witnessed their children go from 'normal' to autistic almost overnight directly after receiving vaccines. It's exceptionally hard to attribute the change you've seen with your own eyes to anything else.

    To Randy, who has had multiple MMR and other vaccines, I'm very happy for you that they had no bad effects. But you're a sample of one and the fact that you're fine doesn't mean that everyone else will react in the same way. In fact it's know that peoples' reactions to vaccine can differ tremendously. So your comments do not add to the debate (even though you're entitled to them of course)

    To Paul, the problem with the research is that it is so narrow. Even if one completely agrees with all the credible research, I still do not know of any research that has investigated whether certain children may have autistic genes, and that those genes may have been triggered by vaccinations.

    There are a number of papers that indicate that autism is genetic. Such genes may be dormant until triggered (this is the case for certain other illnesses). A vaccination is an abnormal event in the body that causes a reaction in the body. It is conceivable that such a reaction could trigger autistic genes into action.

    I have no proof of this at all, but it would explain the almost immediate behavior change witnessed by many parents (me included) of autistic kids after their child has been vaccinated. If this is the case, then it would mean that autism is not caused by vaccines, but that the reaction generated by the vaccine could be the trigger for dormant autistic genes to become active.

    I'd like the medical researchers to look for this possibility. If it proves to be true, then vaccine companies should develop a pre-screening test for kids to check their possible susceptibility to autism prior to getting a vaccine. If they are susceptible, they shouldn't get the vaccine, if not, by all means the child should be vaccinated.

    March 16, 2010 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Paul

    One of the classic logical fallacies is variously described as "confusing cause and effect" or "questionable cause" (see http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/confusing-cause-and-effect.html ). Unfortunately, the association between receiving childhood vaccines and developing autism may be an example of this. Childhood vaccines are given during a period of rapid brain development in young children. New capabilities and behaviors appear over very short periods of time. Therefore, the association noted could be correlation to a shared factor (key period for both brain development and intervention to prevent childhood diseases), rather than causitive.
    Unfortunately, the human brain evolved to generalize from single observations. If that observation is seeing a friend get eaten by a tiger, that's a good thing! But the human brain is not built for statistical inference or the scientific method; they are both in some ways "unnatural" behaviors.
    The issue of parents observing overnight changes in their children after vaccination can actually be answered with evidence: how rapid was the change in children who were not vaccinated but developed autism, and when did it occur? Does anyone out there know if there has been a well-controlled study of this question?

    March 16, 2010 at 13:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Randy Crawford

    Cliff and Paul are both making some of the most intelligent comments that have emerged on the autism/vaccine controversy. As I (with immense humility, of course) have also said the same things in longer-winded versions of my comments elsewhere, perhaps the following would adequately synthesize the various points of view:
    It is entirely possible that some people are "allergic" [to paraphrase Cliff] to vaccines and suddenly convert to autism, in some unknown way(s) analgous to an anyphylactic reaction, via some process(es) that happen over a few hours or days rather than in minutes. If there is such a theoretical possibility, then Paul is correct in recommending a statistically valid test derived from adequately designed experiments, to estimate probability values and clue in on an ultimate regression analysis (to elucidate and prove cause) as opposed to mere initial correlation clues (which only suggest cause). Unfortunately, to actually demonstrate cause kids would have to be subjected to the "cause" to see if it actually increased the frequency of autism, and such a Mengelian proof would be unthinkable. An animal model or an in vitro test might be achievable. As Paul points out, it is important to remember at all times that kids can develop autism with no vaccines involved, so this in a sense already demonstrates 'no cause' or at least nothing that can be identified, but if it exists the true unknown cause is not vaccines, at least a significant proportion of the time.

    Therefore, we can postulate the possibility that like an avalanche ready to bust loose, autism can happen all on its own with no apparent trigger– but something about some vaccines can increase the frequency (a statistical probability inotherwords) of a sudden conversion from a normal stable to an abormal unstable condition. It may be there are several triggers and/or several pathways for "autism" to happen, and it may be there are several subtypes of autism or overlapping subtypes. To get at these possibilities, it would be necessary to do something like the following: instead of a few kids being intensely studied in isolation, a large number of kids should be cooperatively entered into a large-scale combined standardized study. The more entered the better, but for statistical validity it would be best to have hundreds or even thousands of autistic kids entered. Ideally, it would be good to have twins (with and without autism) involved. The goal of the study would be to search for some correlated factors or groups of factors in common that predisposed toward autism. Genetic? Serological? Cytoplasmic? Membrane transport? Nutritional? Bacterial? Chemical exposure? etc. etc. Particularly if there were common and distinct patterns among affected vs. unaffected twins, it might be more easy to focus on the actual culprit(s), if any, and any association re sensitivity to vaccines, if any.

    If there is a subtle/if there are subtle triggers and pathways, it would take a lot of kids, a lot of testing, and a lot of data analysis to find the culprit(s) in light of all the exhaustive examinations that have been done already. Read: it would take big bucks and big ingenuity. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is often false logic, so we can't say what is the cause of autism unless a cause or causes are demonstrated. If a sensitivity screening test can be developed pre-vaccine or pre-anything else it could save a lot of misery. But until "what to screen for" is identified, we have nothing to rely on other than conjecture. In my experience, vaccines are innocent. If someone wants to claim they are guilty, they need to identify the predisposing condition(s) and their mechanism(s) of altering biochemistry and physiology so as to bring about autism– whatever autism precisely is beyond a general collection of cruel and distressing symptoms with various manifestations. Maybe the best place to start is to get a precise cellular/phsyiological/biochemical definition of autism and its subtypes.

    March 16, 2010 at 19:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Mike in CA.

    It's very obvious many of the commenters here are quite new to this topic. Nothing wrong with that of course but when you have studied and observed and lived this B.S. for well over a decade it is hard to read some of these ignorant statements.

    A couple quick comments because anymore I don't spend much time / energy fighting what is essentially the SAME entity. Big pharma, CDC, FDA, Federal Kangaroo Court are basically all promoting MORE vaccines AND ruling on the Mercury / Autism link. It's the fox watching the hen house – how convenient.

    Look around people. Don't you see this sort of thing all around? All industries are controlled by the power and money to the point of complete lunancy.

    I'm completely convinced my son has autism primarily because the vaccinations he received were laden with heavy metals, esp. mercury. Also he and other children get an excessive number of shots and at too early an age, etc, etc. Bottomline, the truth will be known by the general public at some point, write that down ;-).

    March 22, 2010 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Tannim

    OK, folks, what I see here is a lot of the same thing:

    On one side: "The court was right, vaccines don't cause autism, the science is settled, yada, yada, yada." Pass the hockey stick graph, folks, your earth is warming–NOT.

    On the other side: "My child got autism/ASD immediately after a MMR/other vaccine shot." Dismissed by apologists for Big Pharma as bunk, but parents tend to not lie about these things either.

    Here's what really happens, folks, and what both the Big Pharma and their apologists won't tell you, and what the pill-and-needle-pushers in medical schools won't teach anyone:

    There are three parts to the puzzle: 1) The genetics. 2) The surrounding environment. 3) the shots.

    1) The genetics: Like everything else that happens to a human body, the genetic makeup means everything in terms of how that body will react to chemicals, forces, and other influences to it–that includes diet, mental stimuli, physical force, chemicals, air, water, all of it. Science is barely scratching the surface when it comes to genetic markers and outside influences on the body. As far as autism goes, there had NEVER been a genetic study on ASDs, ever. Why not? Money. Big Pharma does NOT want people to ever learn that genetics predispose certain people to reactions to their poisons, while others are not, because the cost to determine that safety factor to prevent liability would be enormous. They're willing to bite the occasional lawsuit over a wrongful death to keep that research from ever happening, because their toxins would be exposed and they'd go out of business. Big Agriculture is already on that path and fighting it every step of the way with their reckless and junk-science GMO crops and chemical-laden processed foods that rely on people not researching proper nutrition, ingredient construction, and simply reading labels.

    2) The surrounding environment: Everything our bodies are surrounded by are things that interact with it, starting with the things we touch, breathe, smell, hear, see, eat, and drink. Those things all cause some sort of immunological response in the body, because it treats every one of those as hostile until it determines otherwise—it’s a survival action at the base cellular level. The more stuff that is toxic to the system that we are exposed to at a young age, when the immune system is developing, the more sensitive it becomes, to the point of allergies. That includes vaccines. But when we are around better environments, with minimal toxins, our bodies are definitely healthier. That’s very old news—centuries old, in fact.

    3) The shots: Whether or not mercury causes autism isn’t the point—it’s an indicator of the real problem. Toxic heavy metal poisoning causes neural problems in both pediatrics and seniors. In children we call it autism or ASD. In seniors we call it Alzheimer’s. The symptoms are common—heavy metal toxicity on neural pathways interfering with normal neural functionalities, manifested in physical symptoms such as motor skills, including speech. Those toxic heavy metals include: mercury, aluminum, chromium, cadmium, and a few others. What makes them toxic is the volume in the system. In levels that the system can handle and purge them out, they are usually not an issue. At higher volumes, the system has problems, the stuff accumulates, and the damage happens—hence the toxicity. It’s a problem in kids because it inhibits proper neural pathway development, and in seniors because of the aging process killing off those pathways. In both cases, the neural system is not robust enough to adjust to the shortages.

    So, what really causes the ASD problems? Simple: Too much of the wrong stuff in the toxic heavy metals, keyed off the adjuvants in the shots, influenced and magnified by the genetics and past system development from other environmental factors—ALL 3 PARTS.

    Have you ever looked at what’s in a vaccine? Not just the killed virus, not just the thimerosal where it’s still used—the rest of the shot is a toxic soup of problems—toxic chemicals like ammonia and formaldehyde, animal parts like aborted monkey fetal tissue, and so on—stuff that should never be injected into human bloodstream! Yet that’s exactly what happens.

    Then there’s the method. The human body has immune defenses lined up to do certain things—tonsils protect the GI tract, as does the appendix and gut flora, for two examples. The liver and kidneys and spleen continually filter out toxins from the body into the urine and feces, and the useful material is what provides nutrients to the body via the bloodstream.

    Vaccines bypass that system completely, moving the toxic sludge directly into the bloodstream, and naturally the system can’t handle that—hence the reactions. Ask any doctor why they do that—they’ll tell you that’s how they were trained, not that it makes biological or medical sense.

    Big Pharma needs to answer a simple question: if the killed virus is all that is needed to stimulate the T1, T2, and T3 immune reactions in the system to create antibodies, then what is the point of the rest of the toxic sludge? Preservation of the vaccine and by extension their profits? Why not simple give the killed virus in a refrigerated saline solution? Why not an oral vaccine sans the junk to let the body do its immune thing naturally? And why so many different vaccines at once, which simply overloads the system, leaving it vulnerable to other illnesses and disease? IS THERE NOT A BETTER WAY? (You bet there is—proper hygiene, nutrition, and exercise!)

    They won’t answer those questions, because the answers are embarrassing and unprofitable to them. Remember, their corporate-chartered goal is to make money for their shareholders, not cure disease. There’s lots of cash in treatment, none in cures. So they’re making their money at the expense of the health and lives of our children.

    And that’s the real crime.

    March 22, 2010 at 20:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Travis

    If you aren't a medical doctor or epedemiologist, you are not qualified to make assertions. The amount of "research" you do Googling web pages other people have created with "evidence" against vaccines is not relevant. The issue has been settled by intense medical research, outside of the reach of "Big Pharma" (whoever that is).

    Now hopefully we can move on to do some real research on the topic without being impeded by antiscience.

    P.S. proper hygiene, nutrition, and exercise does not stop smallpox, measles, mumps, or rubella!

    March 23, 2010 at 12:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Tannim

    Ah, yes, the argument to authority in contrapositive: "You aren't a doctor, therefore you don't know anything."

    Considering I never said whether I was or not, such an argument is utter garbage. It's also a clear sign of no counter argument at all, and your denial isn't a river in Egypt.

    I've read the research, and there is NO such research in the USA outside of funding by Big Pharma on vaccines, and if you have no idea who Big Pharma is, then the one without the clue is YOU. Follow the money. The real answers lie in research done outside the USA.

    The science and the history surrounding the reduction in diseases has shown that vaccines didn't do squat. No amount of Travis's apologista and lack of understanding of human physiology will change that, either. I've done plenty of research into how the immune system works, and plenty of research into human biochemistry, endocrinology, immunology, and hematology–without blood money from Big Pharma to pay me to arrive at a preconceived result.

    BTW, proper hygiene does indeed stop smallpox, measles, mumps, and rubella–a simple bleachwater sanitizer of 1 tbsp bleach per 1 gal water kills them all on contact on transmittable surfaces, as does a portable UV light now readily available. No vaccines needed. That trick has been known for years in the foodservice industry–also works on surface e coli, botulism, salmonella, hepatitis, and staph. Proper nutrition and exercise also keep the body's pH and immune systems healthy and able to fight off diseases, including viruses. That too, is very old news.

    March 24, 2010 at 04:10 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.