Deferring to a special master’s finding that the parents of a child who allegedly developed autism from the measles component of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine failed to establish causation, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a ruling denying the parents compensation under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act.Hazlehurst v. Sec’y of Health & Human Servs., No. 2009-5128 (Fed. Cir., decided May 13, 2010).

This test case was one of three decided in 2009, based on different theories of causation and representing some 5,000 cases filed as part of the “Omnibus Autism Proceeding.” The parents sought to prove that “the MMR vaccine causes an immune dysfunction that impairs the vaccinee’s ability to clear the measles virus. Unable to properly clear the measles virus from the body, the vaccinee experiences measles virus persistence which leads to chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal system and, in turn, chronic inflammation in the brain. Petitioners argue that the inflammation in the brain causes neurological damage that manifests as autism.” According to the parents, the special master who heard the case erred by discounting their expert evidence and failing to exclude the expert evidence the government introduced.

The appeals court disagreed, ruling that the master appropriately discounted the parents’ evidence, including medical research from Dr. Andrew Wakefield and Unigenetics, a Dublin-based for-profit, non-accredited laboratory, now closed, and from Dr. Stephen Walker, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, who “was the primary proponent of the hypothesis that the MMR vaccine could cause autism in certain children.” The court found the evidence unreliable and concluded that the master properly admitted the testimony of the government’s expert who corroborated other witnesses’ criticisms of the Wakefield/Unigenetics and Walker research.

While the court acknowledged that Unigenetics equipment and records were unavailable due to the lab’s closure, because the master gave the parents more than a year to obtain additional information to support its validity or counter the government’s expert, and the parents “chose not to seek relevant reports from the UK litigation or to recall Dr. Bustin for further questioning,” the court found that the master did not err in admitting Bustin’s testimony.