Two 10-year-old boys from Portland, Ore., will serve as the test cases that determine whether the children and their families should be compensated. Attorneys for the boys will attempt to show the boys were happy, healthy and developing normally. But, after being exposed to vaccines with thimerosal, they began to regress and show symptoms of autism.
Thimerosal has been removed in recent years from standard childhood vaccines, except the flu shot. In 2004, a committee with the Institute of Medicine concluded there was no credible evidence that vaccines containing thimerosal caused autism.
Overall, nearly 4,900 families have filed claims with the U.S. Court of Claims alleging that vaccines caused autism and other neurological problems in their children. Lawyers for the families will present three different theories of how vaccines caused autism.
The case beginning Monday focuses on the second of those theories: that thimerosal-containing vaccines alone cause autism. Lawyers for the petitioning families said they will present evidence that injections with thimerosal deposit a form of mercury in the brain. That mercury excites certain brain cells that stay chronically activated trying to get rid of the intrusion.
"In some kids, there's enough of it that it sets off this chronic neuroinflammatory pattern that can lead to regressive autism," said attorney Mike Williams.
In the end, the families' attorneys hope to convince a special master of the U.S. Court of Claims that thimerosal belongs on the list of causes for the inflammation that leads to regressive autism.
To win, the attorneys for the two boys, William Mead and Jordan King, will have to show that it"s more likely than not that the vaccine actually caused the injury.
Many members of the medical community are skeptical of the families' claims. They worry that the claims about the dangers of vaccines could cause some people to forgo vaccines that prevent illness.
"I think that what's so endearing to me about the anti-vaccine people is they're perfectly willing to go from one hypothesis to the next without a backward glance," said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Autism is a developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. Dr. Andrew Gerber, a psychiatrists, said that medical experts don't have a comprehensive understanding of what causes autism, but they do know there is a strong hereditary component.
Toxins from the environment could play a role, but currently, data does not support that they do, Gerber said.
Arguments are scheduled to go on throughout the month. A final decision could take several more months to occur. Claims that are successful would result in compensation taking into account lost earnings after age 18 and up to $250,000 for pain and suffering.
The families or the federal government can also appeal the decision of the special master to the Court of Federal Claims or to a federal appeals court.
While there have been about 5,000 claims relating to autism, there have been fewer than 3,000 claims for all other vaccines.