By: Emily Willingham, Forbes
There’s a post making the rounds courtesy of something called “Whiteout Press” with the headline “Courts confirm vaccines cause autism.” It’s spreading across sites, through chains of elementary school parent communities, and onto radars of other communities that overlap. In other words, it’s viral. If only there were a vaccine for it.
The post itself is a cobbled together retelling of stories everyone’s already known for years. Whiteout Press might have been surprised to learn about this “ongoing story,” but each element of it has been widely reported in the mainstream media over the last decade and a half, in exceptional detail.
The centerpiece of the “courts confirm” article is the 2012 finding of a local Italian court that a child was diagnosed with autism a year after receiving an MMR. The court, in linking the two things, relied very heavily on the retracted and fraudulent 1998 Wakefield MMR Lancet paper and the testimony of a single physician, hired by the plaintiff’s attorney (widely known for advising parents on how to avoid compulsory vaccinations). The physician, Massimo Montinari, it seems, has written a book on how vaccines cause autism and peddles an autism “cure” that he’s devised.
Italian courts, provincial or otherwise, are not known for basing their rulings in science. They are, after all, part of the system that led to a manslaughter conviction of six scientists for not predicting the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, disregarding completely the obvious fact that such predictions are not, in fact, scientifically possible. In a similar way, the Italian court that made the MMR-autism ruling–the centerpiece of this latest “courts confirm” tripe–ignored completely the science made available to it and focused almost solely on the retracted Wakefield paper and a physician with a COI in making its decision. A decision that is, by the way, under appeal.
The other “evidence” in the misleading viral “courts confirm” article regards the “vaccine court” in the U.S. This “court” is actually a long-standing mechanism for evaluating vaccine injury claims via a federal process and to distinguish claims that are legitimate and not so legitimate. This National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was established in 1988, so it’s not exactly a state secret or breaking news. Its primary service is as protection for those involved in vaccine manufacture and administration because in the hyperlitigious society that is the USA, and given the millions and millions of vaccines administered annually, the litigation risks could be astronomical. Such a threat could limit willingness to manufacture life-saving vaccines. In the words of the Department of Health and Human Services:
The VICP was established to ensure an adequate supply of vaccines, stabilize vaccine costs, and establish and maintain an accessible and efficient forum for individuals found to be injured by certain vaccines. The VICP is a no-fault alternative to the traditional tort system for resolving vaccine injury claims that provides compensation to people found to be injured by certain vaccines. The U. S. Court of Federal Claims decides who will be paid. Three Federal government offices have a role in the VICP:
- the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS);
- the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ); and
- the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (the Court).
A trust fund, funded by a tax on each dose of vaccine administered, exists to pay the claims.
With regard to autism specifically, the VICP lawsuits related to autism and vaccines were lumped together into what became known as the autism omnibus trial. Three special masters were appointed to evaluate three test cases from this group. The court ultimately denied compensation for these cases and then denied compensation for a further three cases, and the court was not impressed with the science or expert witnesses marshalled for the plaintiffs. After the decisions, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson stated:
“Hopefully, the determination by the special masters will help reassure parents that vaccines do not cause autism.”
In fact, the scientific, not just judicial, evidence to support that statement is overwhelming and the evidence against it scanty at best–and occasionally retracted. Indeed, it’s so sparse that those who insist that autism and vaccines are linked must resurrect old information, repackage it in their skewed agenda, and mispresent the relevance of court rulings to make it look like there’s a link. Even if for obscure reasons you want to rely only on court rulings, what we have here is a ruling against cause in three cases versus a ruling for cause in one case. That’s a 3:1 win for “vaccines don’t cause autism” looking only at the courts.
What baffles me–genuinely baffles me–is why they expend the energy on such an internally inconsistent, crazy-quilt job of an argument to level these false charges against vaccines. No medical intervention is without risks, and vaccines are no exception. But vaccines are among the safest, most-effective, and most widely life-saving interventions of all time. Mispresenting the facts about them does no one any good at all and has done considerable harm.
[My thanks to the SkepticalRaptor blog for concise background on the Italian court case; you can read much more detail on that there.]