It's official. An ongoing debate is one step closer to resolution - whether or not autism is caused by vaccines. At least for one vaccine and according to a US court that has ruled against claims made by parents with autistic children. The court said that the measles vaccine is not to blame for their children's neurological disorder.
More than 5,000 claims were filed with the U.S. Court of Claims alleging that vaccines caused autism and other neurological problems in their children. To win, parents had to show that it was more likely than not that the autism symptoms were directly related to the measles-mumps-rubella shots they received.
The judges in the cases said the evidence was overwhelmingly contrary to the parents' claims — and backed years of science that found no risk.
"It was abundantly clear that petitioners' theories of causation were speculative and unpersuasive," the court concluded in one of a trio of cases ruled on Thursday.
The ruling was anxiously awaited by health authorities and families who began presenting evidence in June 2007. More than 5,500 claims have been filed by families seeking compensation through the government's Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. The claims are reviewed by special masters serving on the U.S. Court of Claims.
"Hopefully, the determination by the special masters will help reassure parents that vaccines do not cause autism," the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement.
To win, the families' attorneys had to show that it was more likely than not that the autism symptoms in the children were directly related to a combination of the measles-mumps-rubella shots and other shots that at the time carried a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosal.
But the court concluded that "the weight of scientific research and authority" was "simply more persuasive on nearly every point in contention."
"It's a great day for science, it's a great day for America's children when the court rules in favor of science." said Dr. Paul Offit of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Under the government's vaccine compensation program, awards to the estate in a vaccine-related death are limited to $250,000 plus attorneys' fees and costs. Awards to individuals with an injury judged to be vaccine-related have averaged more than $1 million.
The court still has to rule on separate claims from other families that other vaccines played a role.
Autism is a disorder of the brain whose symptoms include impaired communication ability and social interactions. It also encompasses repetitive behaviors, such as walking in circles and rocking, and ritualistic behaviors, such as sticking to a set schedule and series of behaviors. Symptoms usually present in children before the age of three.
Approxmiately 1 person in every 150 is diagnosed with autism, making it "more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined," according to Autism Speaks. Autism affects all racial and ethnic groups, but has been found to affect boys four times as much as girls.
Autism symptoms can vary greatly in form and severity. ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorders, can include milder forms, such as Asberger's syndrome.
The causes are still unclear and, while genetics play a role, it has also been associated with certain agents known to cause birth defects. The vaccine debate will probably continue to rage on, but for now the measles vaccine has been ruled safe.