Yesterday saw the publication of yet another study claiming that it has uncovered “evidence” of a “clear vaccine-autism link based on government data.” However, many aspects of the study suggest that it is not a scientific review of evidence, but another attempt to give the weight of academic validity to claims that vaccines or something in vaccines can be linked to autism and to claims that the government is conspiring to “cover up” vaccine-autism link.
In other words, the study is further evidence of the curious perseverance of some to hold onto beliefs that vaccines can be a possible cause of autism, despite mounting scientific proof disputing a link and despite the discrediting of the original 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield and others in which a link between the MMR vaccine and autism was first claimed.
I first became aware of the idea of a purported link between vaccines and autism not because my husband Jim Fisher and I saw any such reaction in our toddler son Charlie to a vaccine, but because Jim read about the notion online. Since then — even though Charlie had no such reactions as many have described following his vaccinations — we’ve followed the narrative of arguments and evidence put forth for such a link carefully. As Charlie was born in 1997 and diagnosed with autism in 1999, the controversy about vaccines and autism has dovetailed with our experience with autism.
I see the study, Unanswered Questions from the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program: A Review of Compensated Cases of Vaccine-Induced Brain Injury, as a further symptom of the desire of parents to help their autistic children. In the case of parents who claim their child has “become autistic” as the result of a vaccine, their belief has propelled them often to seek legal action, by filing vaccine-injury claims through the US Court of Federal Claims under the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). The VICP is run by a US Department of Health and Human Services agency called the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA); it was created in 1986 by Congress in 1986 and allows petitioners to bypass the regular civil court system to settle their claims in what has come to be known as “vaccine court.”
The authors of the study, which was published online in the Pace Environmental Law Review (PELR), a journal run by Pace University Law School students, include parents of autistic children (Robert Krakow and Louis Conte) and others who are advocates for a vaccine-autism link. The lead author, attorney Mary Holland, has co-edited a book entitled Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science, and Coercive Government Threaten Our Human Rights, Our Health, and Our Children, which suggests that she has definite opinions about a putative vaccine-autism link.
Indeed, all four authors are on the board of directors for the Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law & Advocacy. The center’s stated mission is to “educate lawyers, advocates and parents about the legal challenges of autism” and to “advance legal and advocacy strategies to improve the lives of those with autism,” the fact that the center is named after the late Elizabeth Birt, a founding member of the anti-vaccine/”pro-vaccine safety” organization, Safe Minds. The legal interests of the center also include criminal law, family law, insurance law, special education law and vaccine law. Some of the study’s authors are long-time proponents of vaccines or something in vaccines being linked to autism.
As noted in a review of the study in Medscape:
The study authors looked at roughly 2500 claims of vaccine injury as of October 2010 that were compensated by the VICP since the program’s inception. Eighty-three were cases of acknowledged encephalopathy and seizure disorder that included autism or autism-like symptoms. Most involved the combination vaccine for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus. The second most common was the combination vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). Awards ranged from $80,000 to $5.9 million.
In 21 of these 83 cases, the federal claims court stated the petitioners had autism or described the condition unambiguously, according to the study. In the remaining 62 cases, the authors determined through structured interviews with parents that the children had autism or an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). All in all, there was confirmation of autism or an ASD beyond parental report in almost half of the 83 cases, according to the study.
The PELR study concludes that, as stated in a press release, “evidence suggests that autism is at least three times more prevalent among vaccine-injured children than among children in the general population.” That is, the study’s authors are arguing that those compensated for vaccine injuries are more likely to be autistic.
But such a finding is somewhat a case of putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Many parents were drawn to file claims alleging a vaccine injury in an autistic child as Wakefield’s findings and anecdotal reports from parents of a child becoming autistic “overnight” swirled around the internet in the late 1990s and in the following decade. It is hardly a surprise that the PELR’s authors found a higher prevalence rate of autistic children in the vaccine court claims because, for the reasons noted in the South Korea autism study by Yale University and George Washington University researchers, the autism rate is much higher because of the expanded definition of autism in recent years, among other factors.
The PELR study should be read not so much as offering any kind of “evidence” about a purported vaccine-autism link. Rather, the study reveals the tenacity with which parents and others believe in such a link, perhaps out of a desire to pinpoint some external agent as the cause of their child’s autism and out of the fear and love parents of autistic children feel as they seek to help children with so many challenges thrive in the world.
More discussion by Lisa Jo Rudy at About.com; the Left Brain/Right Brain blog, which notes how the PELR study confirms the higher prevalence rate (1 in 38) noted in the study on the autism rate in South Korea that was announced on Monday; and by Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, at PLOS Blogs.
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