WASHINGTON -- Lawyers began arguments yesterday in the first of several test cases that may help decide whether the government should pay millions of dollars to parents of children with autism.
Nearly 5,000 parents say that vaccinations caused their children to develop autism and many of their claims have been pending for five years. The hearing was held at the "federal vaccine court" set up by Congress 20 years ago when a series of vaccine scares nearly crippled the industry.
Every major study and scientific organization examining this issue has found no link between vaccination and autism, but the parents and their advocates have persisted. Their frustration was evident in the opening statement of the parents' lawyer, Thomas Powers of Portland, Ore.
"Numerous obstacles have been placed in the path of the petitioners seeking that fair and generous compensation that they are entitled to," Powers said.
Powers gave his statement with his back to the three judges who will decide the case, addressing instead a few dozen audience members, many of them lawyers.
"I felt it was important to address the families and the public," he said during a break in the hearing.
The vaccine court has gone to unusual lengths to convince parents that it will fairly adjudicate their claims, even setting up a conference call where parents can listen in to the hearings, which are expected to run for three weeks.
At the opening of the hearing, Special Master George Hastings expressed his sympathy to the parents of children with autism.
He pointed to Michelle Cedillo and her parents, Theresa and Michael, whose claim for compensation is serving as the first test case. Hastings said the Cedillos were "the most important people in the courtroom."
"To all such family members, as to the Cedillo family, we special masters pledge to you that we will listen very carefully to the evidence presented at this hearing," Hastings said. "We realize what an important task . . . has been assigned to us in this hearing."
Michelle Cedillo, 12, was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair at the start of the hearing. She wore hearing protection similar to that worn by heavy-machinery operators. She hit herself repeatedly and made loud grunting noises. Her parents soon took her out of the courtroom.
Many parents who say that vaccines gave their children autism are deeply suspicious of what they see as the government's role in their children's illness. Most have dismissed the many government-sponsored studies and panels that found no link between vaccination and autism. A few have even physically threatened some government scientists.
Parents' lawyers said this case would probably affect only a few of the other claims. A test hearing for the other claims will be heard next year, said Mike Williams, chairman of a committee of parents' lawyers.