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High-stakes trial weighs autism-vaccine claims

One family's anguish is front and center in a long-awaited legal fight.

June 25, 2007|Jia-Rui Chong and Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Theresa and Michael Cedillo, the parents of an autistic child, sat behind their three attorneys on one side of the courtroom.

On the other side were three federal lawyers armed with a shelf full of scientific studies and legal briefs. Behind them were more rows of lawyers and scientists, some of them representing the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

It was a lopsided gathering, but the Cedillos had been waiting for the confrontation since they came to believe years ago that their daughter's autism may have been triggered by a combination of childhood vaccines and a mercury preservative used in them.

"For so long no one wanted to hear," said Theresa, 45. "Now someone wants to listen."

The case of Cedillo vs. Secretary of Health and Human Services is the culmination of one of the most wrenching episodes of modern public health.

For more than a decade, thousands of families of autistic children have clamored to gain legitimacy for their claim that childhood vaccines are to blame for their children's plight.

Now they are having their day in court. "We're hoping we can ... open the gates for other children who are ill," said Michael Cedillo, 51, a meter reader and bill collector for an electric company in Arizona.

Arguments in the Cedillos' case began June 11. Theirs is the first of nine families that will appear over the next year in an obscure federal court that rules on injuries possibly caused by vaccines. The cases were chosen to represent 4,800 autism claims that have flooded the vaccine court in recent years.

The stakes are high. The court oversees a $2.5-billion trust fund that could be drained if the parents win their claim.

Public health officials have warned that a finding favorable to the parents could deter other parents from vaccinating their children, a potential health calamity.

The government position is backed by the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence, which has repeatedly found the vaccines safe.

But what the Cedillos and other parents lack in hard data, they have made up for with a stubborn passion and sorrow that science cannot dispute.

"It is parents versus science," said Kevin Conway, one of the attorneys for the Cedillos.

Preservative blamed

At the center of the case is Michelle Cedillo. At 12, she still sleeps in diapers. She mostly communicates by waving her hands or tapping on a table. She can count to 2 but no higher.

Her parents say Michelle was a happy, normal 15-month-old until she received the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, commonly known as MMR, on Dec. 20, 1995.

A week later, she began to have a fever that soared to 105.8 degrees. "She was a whole different child" after the fever broke, her mother said.

Michelle pushed her father away when he tried to nuzzle her. She stopped talking and didn't answer to her name. She became obsessed with watching the same "Sesame Street" videos.

Michelle was soon diagnosed with autism. "We were totally numb," said her mother.

The disorder leaves its victims isolated from the world around them. Autistic children typically are unable to understand others' emotions, have difficulty speaking and are prone to repetitive actions.

Some autistics are able to function almost normally; others are severely impaired.

There are no nationwide data documenting the historical incidence of autism. Twenty years ago, psychiatrists estimated the rate at 1 in every 2,000 to 5,000 children. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 150 schoolchildren had been diagnosed with it.

Some parents think autism can be caused by a vaccine preservative called thimerosal, which contains ethyl mercury. Partly on the precautionary urging of the U.S. Public Health Service, the use of thimerosal was abandoned in 2001 in childhood vaccines, except for influenza vaccines.

Mercury can cause neurological problems, and some studies have concluded there is a link with autism.

Parents groups frequently cite a 2006 study by French and British researchers that found indications of elevated mercury and other heavy-metal levels in children with developmental and neurological disorders, including autism.

But at least 14 separate mainstream studies have rejected the connection, showing that the rate of autism is the same in children who received thimerosal and those who did not.

The growth of the disorder also has not abated since thimerosal was removed from vaccines.

The results are "clear and consistent and reproducible," said Dr. Paul Offit of the Philadelphia Children's Hospital.

Many researchers believe that genetics is behind autism. Dr. Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington, noted that when one identical twin has the disorder or other serious social impairment, there is a 90% chance that the second twin will as well.

But, parents ask, how can an epidemic be caused by genes?

Some researchers argue that there is no autism epidemic.

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