WASHINGTON — Thousands of parents who claimed that childhood vaccines had caused their children to develop autism are wrong and not entitled to federal compensation, a special court ruled Thursday in three decisions with far-reaching implications for a bitterly fought medical controversy.
The long-awaited decision on three test cases is a severe blow to a grass roots movement that has argued — predominantly through books, magazines and the Internet — that children's shots have been responsible for the surge in autism diagnoses in the United States in recent decades.
The vast majority of the scientific establishment, backed by federal health agencies, has strenuously argued there is no link between vaccines and autism and warned that scaring parents away from vaccinating their youngsters places children at risk for a host of serious childhood diseases.
The decision by three independent special masters is especially telling because the special court's rules did not require plaintiffs to prove their cases with scientific certainty — all the parents needed to show was that a preponderance of evidence, or "50 percent and a hair," supported their claims.
The vaccine court effectively said that the thousands of pending claims represented by the three test cases are on extremely shaky ground.
In his ruling on one case, special master George Hastings said the parents of Michelle Cedillo — who had charged that a measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused their child to develop autism — had "been misled by physicians who are guilty, in my view, of gross medical misjudgment."
Hastings said that he was deeply moved by the suffering autism imposed on families such as the Cedillos, but that "the evidence advanced by the petitioners has fallen far short of demonstrating … a link."
The ruling does not preclude appeals. Two other special masters reached similar conclusions in their cases.
The vaccine court was set up by Congress as part of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. It was primarily designed to compensate the tiny fraction of people who suffer serious side effects from vaccines. Rather than have these victims sue vaccine makers in regular court — potentially putting the manufacturers out of business and jeopardizing a major component of the country's public health — the court set up a "no-fault" system that required victims to prove only that vaccines harmed them, not that anyone intentionally caused the harm.