Skeptics nabbed a rare win over the weekend, when the United States Vaccine Court chose to compensate parents who had lost their child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome shortly after he received his routine vaccinations. “I have concluded that petitioners have presented sufficient evidence and testimony to entitle them to compensation in the Vaccine Program,” the judge wrote in her decision. “I have not concluded that vaccines present a substantial risk of SIDS. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary. The vast majority of vaccine recipients do not succumb to SIDS.”
But the Vaccine Court’s cautious language—and explicit conclusion that vaccines do not increase risk of SIDS—did little to quiet anti-vaccine advocates, who seized on the fact that a U.S. court actually ruled that vaccines may have caused a case of SIDS. “This happens every day,” crooned Vactruth, a bastion of science denial, while begging parents to withhold life-saving vaccines. “Please parents, just say no and do the research before your baby is next!”
This SIDS/Vaccine Injury court case just concluded to help prove this baby died from vaccines given the day before. We…
It is crucial for parents to remember that, despite this court ruling, vaccines do not cause SIDS. They also don’t cause autism (how are we still debunking this?!). But vaccines do, on exceedingly rare occasions, cause severe allergic reactions and neurologic complications that can lead to death and debilitation, and that’s why there’s Vaccine Court. Over the past 25 years, the court has shelled out nearly $2 billion to parents who have demonstrated, at least to the satisfaction of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, that their children were victims of vaccine complications. The cash for these payouts comes from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program which—fun fact—is funded by you! Since 1988, there has been a sneaky 75-cent tax on most shots, which pays for these kinds of tragedies.
In this particular tragedy, a five-month-old child named J.B. was found dead in his crib in 2011 after receiving his routine DTaP, polio, HiB, pneumonia, and rotavirus vaccines just one day before. There were several risk factors for SIDS at play in this case—J.B. had been born premature and had a history of respiratory problems, and he was found sleeping his side (not his back, as recommended) with a blanket and pillow in his crib. Accordingly, the autopsy report concluded that “the cause of death was SIDS and the manner was ‘natural’,” due to the “the reported sleeping position in a child with no anatomic or microscopic significant findings.”
That’s a textbook case of SIDS, and we have no particular reason to believe that vaccines played a role. Especially since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain a list of rare conditions presumed to be caused by vaccines (for these conditions, petitioners tend to be compensated immediately if a child dies). SIDS isn’t on that list. (Autism isn’t either, because once again there’s no. such. link. If you don’t believe us, ask the Federal Circuit).
So for J.B.’s parents to win this court case, they had to meet a legal standard known as the Althen’s Standard, which requires only three things: proof that the vaccines were administered within a certain time frame of the injury, a medical theory (even a dubious one) linking the vaccine to the injury, and a logical sequence of cause and effect. They pulled it off, in a process described at length in the court documents and distilled (and critiqued) here.
The upshot is that the parents dug up some bad epidemiological data and found a doctor with poor credentials who was willing to make a tenuous connection between cytokines (cells secreted during a fever) and vaccines (which can cause fevers), and then link J.B.’s vaccine-induced fever to SIDS. The theory doesn’t pass any sort of scientific muster, but it’s important to remember that that’s simply not the bar for Vaccine Court. Science Based Medicine put it succinctly: “This is a very confused and contradictory ruling…a weak case based on a lot of speculation rooted mainly on basic science and a preponderance of evidence that, as admitted in the ruling, does not support a causative role for vaccines in SIDS (indeed, if anything, quite the contrary)….[the judge] misinterpreted the epidemiological data, and then used that misinterpretation to justify considering the petitioner’s ‘theories’ to be plausible, even though the ‘theory’ (wild-ass speculation, actually) is not well-supported by science.”
Do vaccines cause SIDS? Absolutely not. Did vaccines cause SIDS in this particular case? We have no reason to believe they did, and plenty of reason to believe other factors were at play, such as the baby’s poor sleep habits and unfortunate medical history. Vaccine Court is designed to give the benefit of the doubt to parents over scientists, and pay large settlements even for injuries that were probably not caused by vaccines.
In other words, the Vaccine Court did its job. And now we have to do ours. Don’t stop vaccinating your kids—and always make sure to follow safe sleep practices to prevent SIDS.