Thimerosal, the organomercurial compound commonly used as a preservative in vaccines, does not cause autism, ruled the so-called vaccine court, a special branch of the US Court of Federal Claims that was established to handle claims of injury caused by vaccines. In this case, a group of parents who are convinced that there is a connection between the additive and autism were told that they had failed to prove their belief.1
Special Master George Hastings Jr wrote, “Such families must cope every day with tremendous challenges in caring for their autistic children, and all are deserving of sympathy and admiration.” He added, however, that the victim compensation program was designed only for families whose injuries or deaths can be directly linked to a vaccine, and that has not been done in this case. It is expected that the parents will appeal the finding in federal court.
Expert witnesses for the parents argued that mercury can have a variety of effects on the brain, but none of them provided opinions on the cause of autism. In order to have succeeded in their action, parents would have to have shown that “the exquisitely small amounts of mercury” that are deposited in the brain from vaccines produce devastating effects that far larger amounts of mercury from other sources do not, said Special Master Denise K. Vowell. However, parents were arguing that the effects from mercury in vaccines differ from mercury’s known effects on the brain.
Opponents of the finding believe that the protection of children was overlooked in the interest of government policy. Rebecca Estepp, of the Coalition for Vaccine Safety, said, “The deck is stacked against families in vaccine court. Government attorneys defend a government program, using government-funded science, before government judges.”
Others, however, are hoping that this finding will help “unscare” the public about childhood vaccinations. The advocacy group Autism Speaks said that “the proven benefits of vaccinating children to protect them against serious diseases far outweigh the hypothesized risk that vaccinations might cause autism. Thus, we strongly encourage parents to vaccinate their children to protect them from serious childhood diseases.” However, the group is going to support research to determine whether some persons, because of genetic or medical conditions, might be at increased risk for autism developing as a result of receiving a vaccination.
Thimerosal has since been removed from most vaccines in the United States in reaction to the concerns of parents.