Offit, a vaccine inventor and chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, argues that thousands of lawsuits alleging that vaccines cause autism are poised to deal a fatal blow to the vaccine industry.
No single medical advance has had a greater impact on human health than vaccines. Before vaccines, Americans could expect that every year measles would infect four million children and kill 3,000; diphtheria would kill 15,000 people, mostly teenagers; rubella (German measles) would cause 20,000 babies to be born blind, deaf, or mentally retarded; pertussis would kill 8,000 children, most of whom were less than one year old; and polio would paralyze 15,000 children and kill 1,000.
Because of vaccines all of these diseases have been completely or virtually eliminated from the United States. Smallpox—a disease estimated to have killed 500 million people—was eradicated from the face of the earth by vaccines. And we're not finished; vaccines stand as our only chance to prevent pandemic influenza, AIDS, and bioterror, and our best chance to prevent certain cancers.
Now, massive litigation could force companies to leave the vaccine business, threatening the future of one of medicine's greatest achievements. On June 11, in an unprecedented action before a federal claims court, lawyers for 4,800 autistic children will argue that vaccines caused autism. If successful, these claims could exhaust the pool of money currently set aside to compensate children who have been hurt by vaccines. Further, lawyers will likely take their claims that vaccines cause autism to civil court, where awards could be enormous.
"I don't want to see the drug companies go out of business," said David Kirby, author of the book "Evidence of Harm," speaking on Imus in the Morning in April 2005. But "we are looking at trillions and trillions of dollars of care for these people."
Predictions of massive awards, and dire warnings about the fate of vaccines, may seem over–dramatic. But vaccines were the first medical product that came close to being eliminated by lawsuits...
Certainly there is plenty of evidence to refute the notion that vaccines cause autism. Fourteen epidemiological studies have shown that the risk of autism is the same whether children received the MMR vaccine or not, and five have shown that thimerosal–containing vaccines also do not cause autism. Further, although large quantities of mercury are clearly toxic to the brain, autism isn't a consequence of mercury poisoning; large, single–source mercury exposures in Minamata Bay and Iraq have caused seizures, mental retardation, and speech delay, but not autism.
Finally, vaccine makers removed thimerosal from vaccines routinely given to young infants about six years ago; if thimerosal were a cause, the incidence of autism should have declined. Instead, the numbers have continued to increase. All of this evidence should have caused a quick dismissal of these cases. But it didn't, and now the court has turned into a circus. The federal and civil litigation will likely take years to sort out.
Autism can be a heartbreaking disorder, often draining parents emotionally and financially. Although many promising genetic, epidemiological, and biological studies have been published during the past few years, autism remains a disorder without a known cause or cure. This has been enormously frustrating for parents.
It would be nice if there were someone or something to blame. We could blame the government and use the federal vaccine compensation program to pay for care. Or we could blame vaccine makers, and get them to pay in civil court. But if vaccine makers—faced with large awards for a problem that wasn't their fault—make the same decisions they did in the early 1980s, all American children will suffer, including those with autism. Then, we'll have only ourselves to blame.