Porter Bridges-Parlet, 17, of Minneapolis, who has been diagnosed with mental retardation and epilepsy, along with autism spectrum disorder, in a photo from last year. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Bridges)

For years, government health officials and most other medical authorities have dismissed the idea that autism might be linked to childhood vaccines. And the special court set up by Congress to compensate people hurt by vaccines has denied thousands of claims by parents who have contended that their children developed autism because of their inoculations.

But a new report in a New York law school journal, the Pace Environmental Law Review, could reignite the often-inflammatory debate over the issue. After looking into cases in which claimants won settlements or awards in vaccine court, the authors found 83 instances in which victims demonstrated evidence of autism – even though, perhaps as a legal tactic, their lawsuits emphasized other injuries.

At a midday news conference Wednesday in front of the red-brick U.S. Court of Federal Claims building in Washington, where the vaccine court hears its cases, authors of the report emphasized that their study was only preliminary. With further research on the more than 2,500 claims that have won compensation in vaccine court, they said, more evidence of inoculation-related autism would be certain to turn up.

“We think this is the tip of the iceberg,” said Mary Holland, a research scholar at the New York University law school and one of the study’s four co-authors.

Holland, in an interview, said it would be “a big problem” for government, vaccine makers and families if it turned out that a lot of children had autism that stemmed from vaccine injuries. But that fact, she said, doesn’t provide legal justification for turning down the claims.

“That may be part of the back story here,” Holland said. “We don’t know, that’s why we’re calling on Congress to look into this.”

The authors, with research help from Pace University law school students, performed database searches to find vaccine court decisions that acknowledged autism or autism-like symptoms. They also identified sealed settlements in which the victims were children, and performed follow-up research to determine if those cases were associated with autism.

In all, they turned up 32 cases with documented evidence of autism or autism-like symptoms.

The evidence in some of those cases included findings by the court that the children had autism, “autism-like symptoms” or “symptoms and behavior consistent with autism.” In other situations, third-party medical, educational or other court records confirmed an autistic disorder.

In addition to those 32 examples, there were 51 cases in which parents interviewed by the researchers said their child’s vaccine injury led to “an autism diagnosis, autistic features or autistic-like behaviors.”

A key similarity among the 83 successful claims identified, which produced more than $96.7 million in settlements and awards, is that the families did not assert that autism was their child’s primary injury.

Another one of the report’s authors, Robert Krakow, a New York lawyer with an autistic child who represents claimants in vaccine court, said the researchers did not determine why autism was a secondary factor in the successful cases. Still, he acknowledged, making a case for a link between vaccines and autism is “not a winner legally.”

As a lawyer, he added, “If you have a way of showing that the injury manifested in something less controversial, then you do that.”

At the same time, Krakow said the study provides a “strong suggestion” that the question of whether vaccines can cause autism should be reopened by federal authorities, rather than allow them to make “a blanket dismissal that vaccines don’t cause autism.”

One of the children in the study whose families won in vaccine court is 17-year-old Porter Bridges-Parlet of Minneapolis, who has been diagnosed with mental retardation and epilepsy, along with autism spectrum disorder. (Autism includes a range of developmental disorders extending from profound problems to far milder forms, including Asperger’s syndrome, which can go undiagnosed.)

The teenager wears a helmet throughout the day to protect against injury from seizures, plays for hours with a simple puzzle meant for toddlers, and repetitively utters whatever he’s fixated on that day.  As his mother, Sarah Bridges, reports, “It could be ‘Hello mother, hello mother, hello mother,’ or ‘Tiggers don’t like honey, Tiggers don’t like honey,'” a reference to the character in Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

In February, 1994, when Porter was four months old, he went through a wellness exam, which included a routine DPT, a combination vaccine against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus. About 14 hours later, his mother says, she found the infant unconscious, his head flopping to the side.

Paramedics eventually revived him and at the hospital, while sweating with a high fever of around 106, Porter jerked with the first of his now-chronic seizures. His other diagnoses, for mental retardation and autism, came from later testing when it was clear Porter was not developing language and other skills at the same rate as his peers.

In 2001, seven years after Sarah Bridges and her ex-husband, Porter’s father, filed a petition with the court, formally known as the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, they settled the case for $2 million. “In our case it was argued that the [DPT] vaccine caused encephalopathy [brain damage] that caused mental retardation and autism-like features,” she said.

However, most legal and medical authorities — who worry about the potentially grave public health consequences if large numbers of families refused to have their children inoculated for dangerous diseases — reject the suggestion of a link between vaccines and autism.

After parents began filing thousands of autism cases, the vaccine court lumped the litigation together, in a maneuver akin to a class action suit, in 2002. As part of what was known as the Autism Omnibus Proceeding, six cases were selected to represent the thousands of autism cases. But one by one all of the case were denied, including one turned down by the court last year.

The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, also weighed in against the supposed link between vaccines and autism in a 2004 report based on an evaluation of several major epidemiological studies. The institute said, among other things, that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to establish that thimerosal, a compound formerly used in some vaccines that contains mercury, could cause the condition.

And just this year, an investigation by the medical journal BMJ dealt perhaps the most devastating blow yet to an influential 1998 article associating autism and childhood vaccines. The investigation found that the 1998 article was based on a hoax perpetrated by a since-disgraced English doctor, Andrew Wakefield, who lost his license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom last year.

In response to the new report released Tuesday, the U.S.  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement saying that “the overwhelming body of evidence to date by the best scientists at CDC and around the world for that matter does not support a link between vaccines and autism.”

A spokesman for the Health Resources and Services Administration, a federal agency that helps run the vaccine court, took the point a step further. “There is no reliable scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism even in cases where an acute encephalopathy [brain damage] following vaccination has occurred,” said the spokesman, Martin A. Kramer.

Patrick Corcoran, in Washington, contributed to this story.

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