News Roundup

Parents claiming a link between MMR vaccine and autism lose final appeal for legal aid

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 21 October 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:939
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    Families who blame the measles, mumps, and rubella triple vaccine (MMR vaccine) for their children's autism lost their final appeal for legal aid funding last week.

    But 11 families who claim the vaccine caused other conditions—such as epilepsy, encephalitis, and deafness—or who allege that their children were injured by earlier versions of the MMR vaccine which are now withdrawn, won funding to investigate the prospects of a claim against the vaccine's manufacturers.

    The Funding Review Committee, which hears appeals against decisions by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to withdraw or refuse funding, turned down appeals by 26 families who argued that the vaccine was linked with autism.

    The review committee, which consisted of a Queen's Counsel and three solicitors, however, decided that the 11 children who developed other conditions after vaccination should have funding reinstated to investigate a possible claim.

    In September 2003, the commission pulled funding for a group action by more than 1000 children against the vaccine. The commission said that medical research had not proved a conclusive link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Therefore, the litigation was bound to fail and it would be wrong to spend a further £10m ($18m; €14m) of public money funding a trial on top of the £15m already spent. Some of the money went on funding research to see if it backed the claimants' case—the first time legal aid has paid for scientific research.

    Publication of the research, whose lead investigator was Andrew Wakefield, then of the Royal Free Hospital in London, sparked a drop in the take-up of the vaccine, but other researchers worldwide have found no link between autism and the MMR vaccine.

    The commission later said, “In retrospect, it was not effective or appropriate for the LSC to fund research. The courts are not the place to prove new medical truths.” This time it would not be repeating the exercise in the case of the 11 children, it said.

    When funding was withdrawn in 2003, parents appealed to the funding review committee but lost. They then took the case to the high court for judicial review, but the court upheld the committee's decision. Last week's ruling by the committee followed an appeal by 37 families who argued that their individual cases warranted support.

    Clare Dodgson, chief executive of the legal services commission, said, “I have every sympathy for the parents and their children. These children are clearly ill, and their parents genuinely believe the MMR vaccine caused their illnesses.

    “However, we have an obligation to fund only cases which have reasonable prospects of success and where the cost of the action is reasonable when compared with the potential damages.”

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