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FAQ: Vaccine Court Hears Autism Cases

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

If the Special Masters rule that these people with autism likely suffered vaccine injury, does it mean that vaccines cause autism?

No. The Office of Special Masters makes legal rulings, not scientific rulings. The Special Masters are trying to interpret the law as intended by Congress, not the laws of nature.

In a precedent-setting 2006 ruling in a case involving hepatitis B vaccine, Special Master Laura D. Millman noted that "The Vaccine Act established a federal 'compensation program' under which awards are to be 'made to vaccine-injured persons quickly, easily, and with certainty and generosity.' … The Court of Federal Claims is therefore not to be seen as a vehicle for ascertaining precisely how and why DPT and other vaccines sometimes destroy the health and lives of certain children while safely immunizing most others."

All that a Special Master needs to offer compensation, Millman suggested, is "a medical explanation of a logical sequence of cause and effect" and "medical probability rather than certainty" linking vaccination to injury. Millman spells out what she means by medical probability -- a theory that has "biologic credibility or plausibility rather than exact biologic mechanism."

Millman is not one of the Special Masters assigned to the Omnibus Autism Proceedings. It remains to be seen whether arguments that vaccines can cause autism will convince any of the three Special Masters to make awards in the case.

Most scientists remain highly skeptical of the vaccine/autism link. Even proponents of the link now tend to argue that vaccines cause autism only in children with some hidden, underlying susceptibility to vaccination.

Some scientists say that if the vaccine court awards compensation to people claiming that vaccines trigger autism, the public will lose faith in vaccination. Those in favor of such compensation say people are more likely to accept vaccination when they know the true risks.

When will there be rulings in the cases?

The Special Masters have indicated that they are ready to make a ruling on the first three test cases, and on the first theory of causation -- that the MMR vaccine in combination with thimerosal-containing vaccines can cause autism. However, they're waiting for the claimants' lawyers to obtain, or give up on, sealed evidence they are trying to get from a British court.

It's possible a ruling on the second theory could come soon after the hearings end in May 2008.

But don't bet on an early resolution of this matter. In 2002, when the Omnibus Autism Proceedings began, the single Special Master then assigned to the cases apologized to the claimants that the hearings would take a long time -- and warned there might not be a decision until July 3, 2004.

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Reviewed on May 14, 2008

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