Bitter feuding over a possible link between vaccines and autism won't go away despite a strong rejection of that theory by a special federal court.
Thousands of families were hoping to win compensation and vindication through three test cases presented to the court. They contended that a combination of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine plus other shots triggered autism.
Officials with the U.S. Court of Claims said they sympathized with the families, but there was little if any evidence to support claims of a vaccine-autism link.
The evidence "is weak, contradictory and unpersuasive," concluded Special Master Denise Vowell. "Sadly, the petitioners in this litigation have been the victims of bad science conducted to support litigation rather than to advance medical and scientific understanding" of autism.
Attorneys for the families said an appeal is a distinct possibility. They also noted that the court still must rule on another theory that vaccines once carrying a mercury-containing preservative are to blame.
The head of a consumer group that questions vaccine safety said she still felt there were the possibility of a link.
"I think it is a mistake to conclude that because these few test cases were denied compensation, that it's been decided vaccines don't play any role in regressive autism," said Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center.
Science years ago concluded there's no connection, but Thursday's rulings in a trio of cases still have far-reaching implications. The move offers reassurance to parents scared about vaccinating their babies because of a small but vocal anti-vaccine movement. Some vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles, are on the rise, and last fall a Minnesota baby who hadn't been vaccinated against meningitis died of that disease.
"We need ongoing research into the causes of autism but cannot let unfounded myths keep us from giving our children the proven protection they need against infectious diseases," said Dr. Joseph Heyman, chairman of the American Medical Association.
More than 5,500 claims have been filed by families seeking compensation through the government's Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Thursday's rulings dealt with the first three test cases to settle which if any claims had merit — and unlike in civil court, the U.S. Court of Claims doesn't require the families to prove the inoculations definitely played a role, just that they probably did.
"I must decide this case not on sentiment but by analyzing the evidence," said Special Master George Hastings Jr., writing specifically about Michelle Cedillo of Yuma, Ariz., who is disabled with autism, inflammatory bowel disease and other disorders that her parents blame on a measles vaccine given at 15 months.
"Unfortunately, the Cedillos have been misled by physicians who are guilty, in my view, of gross medical misjudgment," Hastings concluded.
Lawyers for the families said they were disappointed.
"There was certainly no scientific proof that vaccines caused autism, but that's not the standard; the standard is likelihood," said Kevin Conway of Boston, who represented the Cedillos. "We thought our evidence was solid."
Autism is best known for impairing a child's ability to communicate and interact. Recent data suggest a tenfold increase in autism rates over the past decade, although it's unclear how much of the surge reflects better diagnosis.