2010: Another bad year for the anti-vaccine movement, as the Special Masters rule

Perhaps you’ve heard of the case of Poul Thorsen. Perhaps not. Either way, that anti-vaccine movement was making a huge deal over this Danish psychiatrist and researcher for two reasons. First, he has become embroiled in some sort of scandal involving research funds at his former place of employment, Aarhus University, leading the ever-hyperbolic Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to post a characteristic bit of conspiracy mongering nonsense to that font of anti-vaccine nonsense, The Huffington Post, in an article entitled Central figure in CDC Vaccine Cover-Up Absconds with $2M. The second reason is implicit in the title, namely that Thorsen was a coauthor on two important studies from Denmark supporting the safety of vaccines and refuting a correlation with autism, one published in the New England Journal of Medicine and dealing with the MMR vaccine and the other published in the journal Pediatrics and failing to show a link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.

Guilty or not, the anti-vaccine movement has pulled out all the stops in its smear machine in order to make it look as though Thorsen was the main researcher behind these two studies, the latter of which is particularly despised by the mercury militia. Being retrospective, the latter study (Madsen et al) is not without flaws, but it is not nearly as bad as anti-vaccine crusaders paint it. In fact, it’s pretty darned good. Of course, Thorsen was nothing of the sort; he was listed only as sixth and fourth author on the NEJM and Pediatrics studies, respectively, and the lead author on both studies has stated that his role on both studies was modest at best. However, the truth was never an obstacle to the anti-vaccine movement, and they have labored overtime to paint Thorsen as central to the case against thimerosal in vaccines as being a major cause of autism.

At first, I couldn’t figure out why. I thought I had an idea, given that anti-vaccine prophet Andrew Wakefield had fallen so ignominiously over the month preceding the revelations about Thorsen’s possible criminal activity. At the time, I thought that the antivaccine movement was desperate and looking for someone on “our side” to attack, hoping that by arguing that someone involved with the Danish studies was involved in unethical and possibly illegal activity they could both distract attention from Wakefield’s being discredited and make the fallacious claim that investigators who have failed to find correlations between vaccines and autism or vaccines and thimerosal-containing vaccines are just as bad as any accusation against Wakefield.

I now know that I was wrong.

In retrospect, I realize that it is far more likely that what the anti-vaccine movement was trying to do was to discredit the evidence against a link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism by any means necessary, not giving a care about how much they have to lie, smear, and distort, to do it. But why? It is clearly because they knew that the Special Masters of the Vaccine Court were set to rule on the last three test cases of the Autism Omnibus and, in retrospect, my guess is that the smear campaign against Thorsen was in fact designed as a preemptive strike on the expected ruling of the Special Masters. And rule they did on Friday, March 12, rejecting all claims in the three test cases (Dwyer v. Secretary of Health and Human Services Case No. 03-1202V, King v. Secretary of Health and Human Services Case No. 03-584V, Mead v. Secretary of Health and Human Services Case No. 03-215V). In this, 2010 is starting to look a lot like 2009, with a one-two punch against the anti-vaccine movement consisting of revelations of Andrew Wakefield’s research misconduct and a ruling against the test cases in the Autism Omnibus.

Because there were over 5,000 claimaints in the Autism Omnibus action, it was decided that the Vaccine Court would hear a handful of test cases representing the two most prevalent hypothesized mechanisms by which vaccines could cause autism. The first batch of test cases would test the hypothesis that MMR causes autism; the second batch would test the idea that the mercury in the thimerosal preservative used in vaccines in the U.S. up until the end of 2001 causes autism. Last year around this time the Special Masters ruled against the first group of Omnibus petitioners, and a year later, they’ve ruled against the second group just as resoundingly as they did the first, as evidenced by these paragraphs from the three cases.

1. Mead v. Secretary of Health and Human Services Case No. 03-215V:

Petitioners have not shown either that certain children are genetically hypersusceptible to mercury or that certain children are predisposed to have difficulty excreting mercury. The scientific validity of the studies on which petitioners rely has been questioned and the conclusions drawn from the studies have been criticized as unsupported. While differences that reflect the range of naturally-occurring individual variability are known to exist with respect to the responses of individuals to mercury exposure, these differences do not point toward the existence of a hypersusceptible population.

Petitioners’ theory of vaccine-related causation is scientifically unsupportable. In the absence of a sound medical theory causally connecting William’s received vaccines to his autistic condition, the undersigned cannot find the proposed sequence of cause and effect to be logical or temporally appropriate. Having failed to satisfy their burden of proof under the articulated legal standard, petitioners cannot prevail on their claim of vaccine-related causation. Petitioners’ claim is dismissed, and the Clerk of the Court SHALL ENTER JUDGMENT accordingly.

2. King v. Secretary of Health and Human Services Case No. 03-584V:

Nor do I doubt that Jordan’s parents are sincere in their belief that vaccines played a role in causing Jordan’s autism. Jordan’s parents have heard the opinions of physicians who profess to believe in a causal connection between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. After studying the extensive evidence in this case for many months, I am convinced that the opinions provided by the petitioners’ experts in this case, advising the King family that there is a causal connection between thimerosal-containing vaccines and Jordan’s autism, have been quite wrong. Nevertheless, I can understand why Jordan’s parents found such opinions to be believable under the circumstances. I conclude that the Kings filed this Program claim in good faith.

Thus, I feel deep sympathy for the King family. Further, I find it unfortunate that my ruling in this case means that the Program will not be able to provide funds to assist this family, in caring for their child who suffers from a serious disorder. It is certainly my hope that our society will find ways to ensure that generous assistance is available to the families of all autistic children, regardless of the cause of their disorders. Such families must cope every day with tremendous challenges in caring for their autistic children, and all are deserving of sympathy and admiration. However, I must decide this case not on sentiment, but by analyzing the evidence. Congress designed the Program to compensate only the families of those individuals whose injuries or deaths can be linked causally, either by a Table Injury presumption or by a preponderance of “causation-in-fact” evidence, to a listed vaccine. In this case, the evidence advanced by the petitioners has fallen far short of demonstrating such a link. Accordingly, I conclude that the petitioners in this case are not entitled to a Program award on Jordan’s behalf.

Dwyer v. Secretary of Health and Human Services Case No. 03-1202V

Unfortunately, the Dwyers (and uncounted other parents of children with ASD) have relied upon practitioners and researchers who peddled hope, not opinions grounded in science and medicine. My heart goes out to parents like the Dwyers who struggle daily, emotionally and financially, to care for their children, but I must decide cases based on the law and not sentiment. The law in this case requires preponderant evidence that TCVs caused or substantially contributed to Colin’s ASD, and, by that standard, petitioners are not entitled to compensation.

Petitioners have not demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that Colin’s condition was either caused or significantly aggravated by his vaccinations. Thus, they have failed to establish entitlement to compensation and the petition for compensation is therefore DENIED. In the absence of a motion for review filed pursuant to RCFC, Appendix B, the clerk is directed to enter judgment accordingly.

All three decisions are between 100 and 310 pages long, with the Dwyer decision being the longest of the three. All of them, in particular the Dwyer decision, list in great detail the quackery to which these unfortunate children have been subjected over the years based on the discredited concept that vaccines cause autism, including chelation therapy, IV glutathione, and several others. Moreover, all three test cases relied on what Dad of Cameron has correctly termed bogus urine mercury testing, and the court completely rejected the scientific validity of these dubious tests.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating here. Both groups of test cases for the Autism Omnibus represent the very best cases that the petitioners could come up with. Presumably, the Petitioners’ Steering Committee chose these cases because they believe them to represent the very best cases that they could come up with, the ones that they considered to have the best chance of demonstrating general causation that would allow the mass of other cases in the Autism Omnibus to proceed. Both groups of test cases failed. they didn’t just fail, though. They failed so resoundingly under relaxed rules of evidence compared to a normal court case that it is difficult to see how an appeal would succeed. Not that that will stop the petitioners from appealing. It also doesn’t stop anti-vaccine loons from fanning out across the media to complain about this case or news agencies, in their quest for “tell both sides” faux “balance,” from indulging them, as ABC apparently did with Rebecca Estepp of TACA. The message is the same as it was last year, namely that the law is stacked against them, that it’s all a conspiracy, as this whine by SafeMinds demonstrates:

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the defendant in vaccine injury cases and is also responsible for carrying out the very vaccine safety research that should be integral to court decisions. This conflict of interest means the deck is stacked against families when they enter “vaccine court” and is yet one more reason for parents to doubt the integrity of the National Immunization Program.

Parents doubt the integrity of the National Immunization Program because groups like SafeMinds and Generation Rescue do their utmost, through spreading misinformation, fear, and pseudoscience, to persuade parents that the NIP is not to be trusted. They also have a serious martyr complex, as this amazing screed full of talking points from the gloriously Orwellian-named Coalition for Vaccine Safety posted on AoA:

  1. The Special Masters protected the vaccine program – and denied justice to vaccine-injured children.
  2. Vaccines cause autism – this Court and HHS have previously acknowledged that.
  3. These decisions highlight the inadequacy and possible suppression of vaccine safety science.

No, the Special Masters acknowledged existing science; vaccines do not cause autism; and there is nothing being “suppressed.” Having lost resoundingly–again–in Vaccine Court, the anti-vaccine movement is now putting its faith in two things. First, somehow it believes that the Thorsen case will somehow “prove” that the science showing no linkage between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism is hopelessly corrupt. Unfortunately for the anti-vaccine movement, as I have said before, the rejection of the hypothesis that thimerosal-containing vaccines cause autism does not depend upon the Danish studies. Even if they were expunged from the scientific literature, the conclusion would still stand, bolstered by multiple other large, well-designed epidemiological studies in at least three countries. That’s the problem with chosing an idea that generates a testable hypothesis, like the mercury hypothesis. It can be falsified. In the case of the mercury hypothesis, it has been falsified. Second, as I predicted, it thinks that Bruesewitz v. Wyeth, which is going before the Supreme Court this fall, will somehow invalidate the National Child Vaccine Injury Act that created the Vaccine Court, allowing a flood of lawsuits in state and federal courts.

No one doubts that the children who are the petitioners in the Autism Omnibus, particularly the test cases, have had a rough time. No one doubts that their parents have had a rough time, in some cases a horrible time, taking care of them. Unfortunately, thanks to the blandishments of quacks and anti-vaccine zealots, these parents’ lot has been made even worse. First they were sold false hope and quackery. Then they were sold hope that they could somehow obtain compensation for “vaccine injury.” These hopes have all been proven false. None of this means that the anti-vaccine movement will stop. This is not about science; it’s about ideology and a religion-like hatred of vaccines, which is why this latest decision in the Autism Omnibus, while a major setback, won’t be the last.