Junk Science and Austim: The Precautionary Principle Jackpot

  • by: |
  • 03/06/2008
The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVIP) board voted to award a family monetary compensation in a case where the reviewers determined that the family was able to show -- not prove, not demonstrate on the basis of scientific evidence -- that it was not impossible to rule out that vaccines aggravated a rare mitochonrial disease (MD). MD is associated with systemic toxicity and nutrient starvation issues at the cellular level that can lead to developmental delays, brain damage and behaviors consistent with those found on the autism disorder spectrum.

Thus, under the very loose evidentiary standards of the NVIP under which a claim may have merit without proof of strong association or causation, the family won an award. That is all the family had to do was show that the vaccines were given around the time the mitochondrial disorder was aggravated.

Now the facts, ignored by the media and, it appears, the special masters reviewing the case:

1. Mitochondrial dysfunction may be one of the most common medical conditions associated with autism.

2. Autistic features are associated with MD. So are developmental delays.

3. There is a high frequency of biochemical markers of mitochondrial dysfunction namely hyperlactacidemia and increased lactate/pyruvate ratio in a small sample of autistic families. But there is no direct linkage between the two markers. (Am J Psychiatry. 2006 May;163(5):929-31. Lack of association between autism and SLC25A12.)

4.Instead, population studies show simply an association: definite mitochondrial respiratory chain disorder, suggesting that this might be one of the most common disorders associated with autism, about 7.2 percent in one study. (Mitochondrial dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders: a population-based study. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2005 Mar;47(3):185-9.Click here to read)

5. There are no scientific studies documenting that childhood vaccinations cause mitochondrial diseases or worsen mitochondrial disease symptoms. In the absence of scientific evidence, the UMDF cannot confirm any association between mitochondrial diseases and vaccines.

But you don't have to bring science to bear in the NVIP, only a plausible basis for a claim which can be little more than a hypothesis that dramatizes risk. In the 1980s parents who sued for compensation for brain damage due to DTP vaccine won even though the did not prove an association and scientists said there was none. Sound familar?

So is this a "victory" for the vaccine-autism stalwarts. It was an ingenious approach taken by the parents and the autism fringe groups. They know the media and it's inability to assess the science and desire to portray suffering parents as triumphant over the government and vaccine companies. So my guess is it is. It is a loss for science and the public health.

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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