Friday, May 14, 2010

Federal Circuit Denies Claim Linking Autism and Vaccination

Yesterday, the Federal Circuit denied a couple's claim that an infant measles, mumps, and rubella ("MMR") vaccination had caused autism in their son, affirming earlier decisions of the Court of Federal Claims and a special master.  The couple, Rolf and Angela Hazlehurst, argued on appeal that the special master had "improperly relied on certain evidence . . . and disregarded other evidence that should have been considered."

The Hazlehursts' claim relied on the research of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, formerly of the Royal Free Hospital in London, and Dr. Stephen Walker of Wake Forest University School of Medicine.  Wakefield was "the primary proponent" of the autism/MMR link and Walker, a researcher with supportive conclusions.  However, the special master found Wakefield discredited, including by the fact that 10 of 12 co-authors of a 1998 Wakefield article, claiming a potential autism/MMR link, had "retracted their support."  The special master also relied on Dr. Stephen Bustin, a government expert witness, who testified regarding flaws in the methods of Unigenetics, an Irish research lab supporting Wakefield's conclusions and formed by his colleagues.  Further, the special master did not accept Walker's work as corroboration.

On appeal, the Hazlehursts objected to the special master's reliance on Bustin and rejection of Walker.  Bustin originally reviewed Unigenetics' methods as an expert hired by vaccine manufacturers in earlier UK litigation.  With that litigation concluded, relevant materials are now under seal or no longer in existence.  The Federal Circuit conceded that this limited the Hazlehursts' ability to rebut Bustin, but explained that the special master had given them more than a year to obtain contrary information and they "chose not to seek relevant reports."  The court also found that the special master would have reached the same conclusion without Bustin, based on other witnesses and scientific literature.  As to the Walker research, the court noted that it was unpublished and that even members of the Walker team had called it "preliminary."  Finding no reversible error, the Federal Circuit affirmed the prior decisions and denied the Hazlehurst claim.

This issue will resurface because Hazlehurst is only one of many cases brought under various theories linking autism and vaccination.  As shown in this video link, special masters decided a set of such cases earlier this week (in favor of the government) and advocates on both sides are passionate.