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FAQ: Vaccine Court Hears Autism Cases

What's Really Going On in the Autism-Vaccines Lawsuits

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

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.

Why does the federal government pay vaccine claims? Aren't vaccine companies responsible?

No medicine is 100% safe, and vaccines are no exception. Vaccines do vastly more good than harm, especially if nearly everyone is vaccinated. But if millions and millions of people are vaccinated, even a vaccine that harms just one person in a million will hurt a certain number of people.

Before 1988, Americans claiming vaccine injury simply sued the vaccine manufacturer. Successful suits in the 1970s and 1980s blamed vaccines for all kinds of unexplained illnesses, such as sudden infant death, mental retardation, and epilepsy. This trend drove all but one maker of the childhood DPT vaccine out of the U.S. market.

To bring drugmakers back into the U.S. market, Congress in 1986 passed the Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which protects vaccine makers against injury lawsuits. To compensate people for injuries from designated vaccines, the law created the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). Funded by a surcharge on every dose of covered vaccines, as of May 2008 the VICP fund stands at over $2.7 billion.

Since 1988, there have been 8,313 claims filed, with 956 compensated to the tune of $859 million as of May 2008. Awards vary in size. The highest award paid so far was $9.1 million. Compensation pays for past and future medical expenses, rehabilitation, therapies, special education, equipment, placement, and lost earnings. It also provides up to $250,000 for pain and suffering.

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