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FAQ: Vaccine Court Hears Autism Cases

What's Really Going On in the Autism-Vaccines Lawsuits
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 14, 2008 -- Contrary to media reports, a U.S. court has not yet issued any decisions on whether vaccines cause autism.

It's an important issue: About 5,000 cases remain in limbo -- at the parents' request -- as the so-called Omnibus Autism Proceeding grinds on.

This week, public hearings in the case resumed as parents of two 10-year-old boys asked the court to rule that thimerosal, a mercury-based vaccine preservative, triggered the boys' autism.

Media interest in the case has skyrocketed since one of the parents of Hannah Poling -- one of the families involved in the case -- last March announced that they'd won.

Indeed, in November 2007 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)  conceded that vaccination could have aggravated Hannah's underlying mitochondrial disorder and caused her autism symptoms. The HHS Division of Vaccine Injury Compensation will compensate the Polings out of its $2.7 billion trust fund, built up from surcharges paid for every vaccination covered by the program.

So why is the court case still going on? What's at stake? Here are WebMD's answers to these and other frequently asked questions:

  • Isn't the case over? Doesn't the concession in the Poling case mean the court already has ruled?
  • Why does the federal government pay vaccine claims? Aren't vaccine companies responsible?
  • What is the vaccine court?
  • What does this have to do with autism?
  • How do the Omnibus Autism Proceedings work?
  • If the Special Masters rule that these people with autism likely suffered vaccine injury, does it mean that vaccines cause autism?
  • When will there be rulings in the cases?

Isn't the case over? Doesn't the concession in the Poling case mean the court already has ruled?

No. "We reiterate that this court has issued no decision on the issue of vaccine causation of autism," the case's three "Special Masters" italicized in their March 27 update on the ongoing proceedings.

Exactly why the government decided to concede the Poling's case isn't clear. The Special Masters -- the federal judges hearing the cases -- say they "cannot provide any details concerning this matter" until the entire case is decided.

In documents leaked to the press, government lawyers wrote that the HHS Division of Vaccine Injury Compensation "has concluded that the vaccinations [Hannah Poling received] significantly aggravated an underlying mitochondrial disorder, which predisposed her to deficits in cellular energy metabolism, and manifested as a regressive encephalopathy with features of autism spectrum disorder."

Government health officials -- such as CDC Director Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH -- say the concession in the Poling case is not an official admission that vaccines can cause autism.

The Omnibus Autism Proceeding, which began in 2002, continues. This series of three hearings, each including three "test cases," will decide whether there's sufficient evidence that vaccines can cause autism.

The first hearings concluded in November 2007. However, attorneys for the claimants have asked for extra time to get new information from sealed U.K. court records, so no final rulings have been made. The second set of hearings began on May 12, and is scheduled to run through May 30, 2008. A third set of hearings is scheduled for mid-September 2008, although they may not be necessary (see below).

There has not yet been a decision in any of these cases.

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