Federal Court Case Reveals CDC Lacks Evidence to Claim ‘Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism,’ Watchdog Groups Assert

After FOIA requests ignored, nonprofits use lawsuit to compel CDC to reveal research used to inform several public vaccination programs
March 13, 2020 Updated: March 15, 2020
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A recent lawsuit to force the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to respond to six Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests has revealed that claims that several vaccines don’t cause autism have no scientific basis, vaccine watchdog groups assert. 

The only study that the CDC provided that specifically examined the questions raised by the lawsuit found a possible link to autism, according to the Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN), one of the groups that filed the suit.

Autism is a developmental disability that can cause significant social and behavioral challenges, and the number of cases of autism has grown exponentially in the past few decades. Recent data finds that 1 in 36 children born in the United States this year will have autism (up from 1 in 10,000 in 1980). While there are many theories, an official cause for the sharp rise hasn’t been determined. 

Concern that vaccines are responsible for the rise in autism comes largely from thousands of parents of autistic children who attest to an immediate and dramatic change in their developmentally normal children immediately following vaccination. This anecdotal evidence has been dismissed by health officials as unreliable.  

Vaccine activists worry there is a connection between the concurrent rise of autism and the increase in immunizations that U.S. children are required to receive. Health authorities have dismissed this link, claiming it to be a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory. The FDA, which is responsible for approving vaccines, and the CDC, which is the major U.S. purchaser and reseller of vaccines, have repeatedly assured the public that exhaustive research shows no such link. 

But that claim is now in question after the CDC provided only 20 studies in response to the ICAN and Institute for Autism Science suit and only after being taken to court; none of the studies appear to resolve the fundamental question.

On June 21, 2019, the two nonprofits filed six FOIA requests with the CDC to obtain evidence that federal health authorities used to prove vaccine safety. The requests sought studies on a handful of vaccines given in the first six months in a child’s life: DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis), Engerix-B, Recombivax HB, Prevnar 13, Hib, and polio (IPV) vaccines. The FOIA also requested the CDC provide studies to support the claim that cumulative exposure to these vaccines during the first six months of life doesn’t cause autism.

Six months later, the two nonprofits filed a 36-page complaint on Dec. 19, 2019, in a federal court that accused the CDC of falsely claiming that “vaccines don’t cause autism,” asserting that studies used to make this claim don’t exist.

In response, the CDC provided 20 studies, and the plaintiffs settled, allowing the suit to be voluntarily dismissed. The groups say the studies from the CDC didn’t provide the evidence health officials say they do. The groups describe the provided studies as including 18 that didn’t produce evidence relevant to the requests (13 were related to the vaccine ingredient thimerosal and five related to both MMR and thimerosal), one related to the MMR vaccine, and one related to antigen exposure, not vaccines.

The only studies relevant to the FOIA requests came from a recent review by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) paid for by the CDC, examining research related to the DTaP vaccine. But the IOM states that it was unable to identify a study to support the claim that DTaP doesn’t cause autism. 

“The evidence is inadequate to accept or reject a causal relationship between diphtheria toxoid-, tetanus toxoid-, or acellular pertussis-containing vaccine and autism,” the report states.

However, the IOM did identify one study showing a causal relationship between DTaP and autism, but said it “was not considered in the weight of epidemiological evidence because it provided data from a passive surveillance system and lacked an unvaccinated comparison population.”

That passive surveillance system is the CDC’s own follow-up mechanism, put in place to ensure post-market vaccine safety. This mechanism is particularly important for vaccines because of the relatively rapid approval process compared to drugs, the results for which are compared to non-drugged (placebo) populations to reveal side effects.

The lack of studies that compare vaccinated and unvaccinated populations is a sore spot for vaccine safety activists and researchers who say such studies are the only way to discover potential side effects from a vaccine.

The lack of research is unexpected, especially in regards to DTaP,  given the National Childhood Injury Act of 1986 stipulated that a study on the DTaP should be conducted. That act was the result of intense lobbying from vaccine makers who successfully argued that they could not be held financially liable for their products because mounting lawsuits would ruin their businesses and jeopardize the nation’s vaccine supply. Lawsuits over vaccine injury are now handled in a special court that critics say is stacked against plaintiffs and limits payouts to $250,000. 

The act states that the Secretary of Health and Human Services “shall complete a review of all relevant medical and scientific information … on the nature, circumstances, and extent of the relationship, if any, between vaccines containing pertussis … and the following illnesses and conditions.” The list of 11 conditions includes autism.

In a press release, Del Bigtree, ICAN founder and producer of the documentary “Vaxxed,” says that when it comes to autism, vaccines are the one suspected culprit the CDC claims to have exhaustively investigated. But when asked to back up this claim, the agency could produce nothing substantial, and only did so under duress, he said. 

“If the CDC had spent the same resources studying vaccines and autism as it did waging a media campaign against parents that claim vaccines caused their child’s autism, the world would be a better place for everyone,” Bigtree stated.

ICAN’s victories against federal health agencies regarding vaccine safety include getting the Department of Health and Human Services to concede that it couldn’t provide a single vaccine safety report to Congress as required by the Mandate for Safer Childhood Vaccines in the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986. The nonprofit also got the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to concede that it doesn’t have any clinical trials to support injecting the flu shot or DTaP vaccines into pregnant women, getting the National Institutes of Health to concede that the Task Force on Safer Childhood Vaccines has not made a single recommendation for improving vaccine safety during the period at issue, and got the FDA to produce, via FOIA request, the clinical trials it relied upon to license the current MMR vaccine, which revealed that these clinical trials had in total less than 1,000 participants and far more adverse reactions than previously acknowledged.

The CDC hasn’t responded to a request by The Epoch Times about how the public should interpret the ruling; the FDA has declined to comment, saying the case involves CDC litigation. While the CDC website still claims that “vaccines don’t cause autism,” ICAN says its next step is to get the agency to remove this claim.

Despite ICAN’s win, some still say the case lacks credibility because it doesn’t provide proof that vaccines cause autism. During a March 5 episode of his internet talk show HighWire, Bigtree addressed that question.

“In a court of law, an eyewitness is the best evidence you can get,” Bigtree said. “And we have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of eyewitness testimony to the destruction of their child and their regression into autism right after DTaP vaccines.”

Update: The FDA has declined to comment, noting the case involves CDC litigation. 

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner