A DECISION by the US government to award compensation under its vaccine damage programme to a child diagnosed with symptoms of autism has been hailed as "unprecedented" by campaigners.
The claim is one of nearly 5000 cases currently pending in the American vaccine "court", which allege that mercury-containing vaccines resulted in autism.
Washington-based attorney Jim Moody, one of the lawyers involved in the cases, told the Sunday Herald the case was scheduled to go to trial in May, but "to everyone's surprise" the government conceded liability.
"It is also significant they conceded it was causing autism, they could have just said vaccines caused injury or been vague," he said. "Never before has our government linked vaccines to autism."
According to court papers, the girl was developing normally during the first 18 months of her life. But the officials agreed to pay compensation after it was demonstrated that five vaccinations she received on one day significantly aggravated an underlying type of genetic disorder, leading to a condition which had "features" of autism.
A press conference is planned for Atlanta tomorrow, where the girl's parents are expected to talk about the case.
While the US health department continues to insist there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism, it has been seized upon as a major concession by campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic who believe there is a link.
Wendy Fournier, of the National Autism Association in America, claimed it echoed the stories of thousands of children across the country.
"With almost 5000 similar cases pending in vaccine court, we are confident that this is just the first of many that will confirm what we have believed for so long - vaccines can and do cause children to regress into autism," she said.
Bill Welsh, president of the Edinburgh-based Autism Treatment Trust, said: "Over many years the compelling evidence of parents in this regard has been ignored by a medical hierarchy who appear more concerned with vested interests than the health of children."
The girl received five vaccinations for nine diseases on one day in July 2000 - including for chickenpox, polio, diphtheria, tetanus and the MMR jab for mumps, measles and rubella. The decision by the Division of Vaccine Injury Compensation did not pinpoint specific issues with the vaccinations but concluded they "significantly aggravated an underlying mitochondrial disorder, which predisposed her to deficits in cellular energy metabolism, and manifested as a regressive encephalopathy with features of autism disorder."
In the UK, much of the concern around vaccines and autism has focused on the MMR triple jab for mumps, measles and rubella. However, numerous studies have failed to find any link, including the largest ever study, which was published earlier this month.
Thiomersal, which contains mercury, began to be phased out as a preservative in childhood jabs from 1999 in the US and in the UK in 2004. It has never been used in MMR.
Tina Cheatham of the US Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) said: "HRSA has reviewed the scientific information concerning the allegation that vaccines cause autism and has found no credible evidence to support the claim.
"Accordingly, in every claim submitted under the Act, HRSA has maintained and continues to maintain the position that vaccines do not cause autism."
A spokesman for the Vaccine Damage Payments Unit in the UK, which is run by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), said details of the disabilities involved in payouts made under the scheme were not recorded.
"DWP keeps the vaccine damage scheme under regular review to ensure that it continues to meet policy intentions," he said.