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A Shot in the Dark
It has been a rite of passage for more than a generation of American children:
By Lisa James
From January, 2008
Whenever you see a gaggle of little ones heading into kindergarten for the first time, it’s likely that nine out of every ten have had their “shots”—the vaccines that have helped make epidemics of such diseases as measles almost as rare as jacks and jump ropes in this video-game age. But childhood vaccination is not without controversy, as demonstrated by a handful of cases currently before the federal court system: In each case, parents have claimed that their child developed autism—a developmental disorder marked by socialization difficulties and compulsively repetitious behaviors—after receiving vaccinations during infancy. Most of them blame thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that has since been removed from most vaccines, even though the mainstream scientific community has found no link between thimerosal and autism.
These cases, referred to as the Omnibus Autism Proceeding, are being heard by a part of the US Court of Federal Claims that deals with the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Under this system, which bypasses the lawsuit process, cases are argued before special masters, judges who then decide whether a plaintiff who claims to have been harmed by vaccination deserves compensation from a government-administered fund.
While nearly 900 plaintiffs claiming vaccine-related injuries other than autism have received settlements over the past 19 years, autism claims are by far the most numerous: The cases now before the court, in which briefs are still being filed, are just the vanguard of roughly 5,000 similar cases that have been brought by parents of autistic children. And behind the dry legal paperwork lie the stories of kids—and families—who have endured years of suffering.
No one wants to see any child suffer. But many doctors argue that mass vaccination is one of public health’s biggest success stories. Other people believe that the routine administration of vaccines is not without dangers of its own, particularly in children who are genetically susceptible to poor vaccination reactions. We’ll present the arguments made by both sides; first let’s look at how vaccines developed.