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This week, after a decade as a part of the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, Dr. Andrew Wakefield's study, the first to attempt to link autism with the MMR (measles, mumps rubella) vaccine, has been withdrawn from that publication. Dr. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, has said, "It's the most appalling catalog and litany of some the most terrible behavior in any research and is therefore very clear that it has to be retracted."
Two interesting legal footnotes to the recent withdrawal by The Lancet, may contribute to the view held by most that the Wakefield study was a deeply flawed. The revelations are that first, some of the money to bankroll the study was allegedly supplied by attorneys who were suing the makers of the vaccines and second, that Dr. Wakefield, had supposedly planned to patent a new MMR vaccine himself.
Since this fresh volley in the ongoing fight over the supposed link between vaccines and autism is sure to stir up new controversy, it might be useful to review the legal outcomes of the suits that inevitably followed the anti-vaccine movement in the U.S.
Under the purview of the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, the Office of Special Masters was established within the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to address claims brought for injury stemming from compulsory childhood vaccines. According to the Wall Street Journal, there were three vaccine/autism test cases, Cedillo v. HHS, Hazlehurst v. HHS, and Snyder v. HHS, which were all decided and reported on Feb. 12, 2009. The Special Masters in each of these cases wrote strong opinions declining to find a legal link between the vaccines and the children's injuries.
The word strong is used advisedly. Here is one excerpt from Special Master Denise Vowell's decision in the case of Colten Snyder v. HHS, as reported by Slate. "To conclude that Colten's condition was the result of his MMR vaccine, an objective observer would have to emulate Lewis Carroll's White Queen and be able to believe six impossible (or at least highly improbable) things before breakfast." The plaintiffs in the two other test cases, Cedillo and Hazelhurst, fared no better.
Legal decisions such as these have not shaken the community who support the belief in the links between vaccines and autism. According to Slate, even the 2009 defection of Alison Singer from her leadership position in the charity Autism Speaks because she tired of its demand for more vaccine studies did not change minds. "The question has been asked and answered and it's time to move on," she told Newsweek after the court's decisions were announced in '09. "We need to be able to say, 'Yes, we are now satisfied that the earth is round.' "
All is at an end with the result of the vaccine court cases last year. A new legal front in the vaccine wars has emerged just this week. As reported on February 2nd, by Stinky Journalism.org (the Art Science Research Laboratory's Media Ethics Project), writer Amy Wallace along with one of her sources and her publisher, are being sued for $1 million by Barbara Loe Fisher of the National Vaccine Information Center, an anti-vaccine advocacy group. Wallace allegedly printed a quote essentially calling Fisher a liar in a piece in Wired. Strong stuff, even for this war-like arena. This case will be further explored in a round two post this topic. Don't touch that mouse.