Today we investigate one of the biggest medical controversies of our time: vaccines. There’s little dispute about this much-- vaccines save many lives, and rarely, they injure or kill. A special federal vaccine court has paid out billions for injuries from brain damage to death. But not for the form of brain injury we call autism. Now—we have remarkable new information: a respected pro-vaccine medical expert used by the federal government to debunk the vaccine-autism link, says vaccines can cause autism after all. He claims he told that to government officials long ago, but they kept it secret.
Yates Hazlehurst was born February 11, 2000. Everything was normal, according to his medical records, until he suffered a severe reaction to vaccinations. Rolf Hazlehurst is Yates’ dad.
Rolf Hazlehurst: And at first, I didn't believe it. I did not think that, I did not believe that vaccines could cause autism. I didn't believe it.
But there's a hard reality for Yates. The trademark brain disease, pain and inability to communicate that’s common with severe autism.
In 2007, Yates’ father sued over his son’s injuries in the little known Federal Vaccine court. It was one of more than 5000 vaccine autism claims.
Congress created vaccine court in 1988, in consultation with the pharmaceutical industry. In the special court, vaccine makers don’t defend their products—the federal government does it for them, using lawyers from the Justice Department. Money for victims comes from us, not the pharmaceutical industry, through patient fees added onto every vaccine given.
Denise Vowell: Our hearings are all closed to the public. And that’s statutory.
In 2007, Yates’ case and nearly all the other vaccine autism claims lost. The decision was based largely on the expert opinion of this man, Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a world-renowned pediatric neurologist shown here at a lecture.
Dr. Zimmerman was the government’s top expert witness and had testified that vaccines didn’t cause autism. The debate was declared over.
But now Dr. Zimmerman has provided remarkable new information. He claims that during the vaccine hearings all those years ago, he privately told government lawyers that vaccines can, and did cause autism in some children. That turnabout from the government’s own chief medical expert stood to change everything about the vaccine-autism debate. If the public were to find out.
Hazlehurst: And he has come forward and explained how he told the United States government vaccines can cause autism in a certain subset of children and United States government, the Department of Justice suppressed his true opinions.
Hazlehurst discovered that later when Dr. Zimmerman evaluated Yates as a teenager. That’s when he partnered with vaccine safety advocate Robert F. Kennedy, Junior—who has a voice condition.
Kennedy: This was one of the most consequential frauds, arguably in human history.
Kennedy was instrumental in convincing Dr. Zimmerman to document his remarkable claim of the government covering up his true expert opinion on vaccines and autism.
Dr. Zimmerman declined our interview request and referred us to his sworn affidavit. It says: On June 15, 2007, he took aside the Department of Justice—or DOJ lawyers he worked for defending vaccines in vaccine court. He told them that he’d discovered “exceptions in which vaccinations could cause autism.” “I explained that in a subset of children, vaccine induced fever and immune stimulation did cause regressive brain disease with features of autism spectrum disorder.”
Kennedy: This panicked the two DOJ attorneys and they immediately fired Zimmerman. That was on a Friday and over the weekend they called Zimmerman and said his services would no longer be needed. They wanted to silence him.
Days after the Department of Justice lawyers fired Dr. Zimmerman as their expert witness, he alleges, they went on to misrepresent his opinion to continue to debunk autism claims. Records show that on June 18, 2007, a DOJ attorney Dr. Zimmerman spoke to told vaccine court, “We know [Dr. Zimmerman’s] views on the issue...There is no scientific basis for a connection” between vaccines and autism. Dr. Zimmerman now calls that “highly misleading.”
The former DOJ lawyer didn’t return our calls and emails. Kennedy has filed a fraud complaint with the Justice Department Inspector General, who told us they don’t “comment on investigations or potential investigations.”
Meantime, CDC—which promotes vaccines and monitors vaccine safety-- never disclosed that the government’s own one-time medical expert concluded vaccines can cause autism - and to this day public health officials deny that’s the case.
Dr. Anne Schuchat: “Based on dozens of studies and everything I know as a physician and a scientist, there’s no link between autism and vaccines.”
CDC declined our interview request. In addition to filing a fraud complaint, Kennedy has delivered Dr. Zimmerman’s affidavit to leaders on Capitol Hill. But there he claims, is another key part of this story: roadblocks set up by the pharmaceutical industry—or PhRMA.
Kennedy: But everybody takes money from PhRMA so they've all been corrupted. And it's almost impossible to get anything done on Capitol Hill.
Kennedy, a Democrat, isn’t the only one claiming vaccine industry money rules the day. We spoke to 11 current and former members of Congress and staff who claim they faced pressure, bullying or threats when they raised vaccine safety questions. Several of them agreed to appear on camera.
Burton: There's no question in my mind whatsoever that the pharmaceutical industry had a great influence with people over at the CDC and FDA. There's no question in my mind.
Republican Dan Burton—former Chairman of the House Oversight Committee—has an autistic grandson.
Burton: I am not against vaccinations.
He pursued vaccine investigations in the early 2000s. Beth Clay was one of his staffers.
Clay: There was a lot of pressure from people on the Hill.
When you say people on the hill were exerting pressure, what kind of people? Colleagues?
Clay: Colleagues, there were pharmaceutical lobbyists. The pharmaceutical lobbyists had, you know, they are the same people that have been entrenched. They can walk into any office in Capitol Hill, and they'll talk to staff, they'll talk to members and they'll encourage them to discourage, our investigation.
Sharyl: At the risk of stating the obvious why did they have that kind of access to members?
Clay: It's money. And if you look at the donations over the last 20 years, the pharmaceutical industry, and Republican and Democrat, they're nonpartisan. They put money everywhere.
Former Congressman, Dr. Dave Weldon, a Republican, says he got the message loud and clear.
Sharyl: If you would want to hold a hearing on an issue like vaccines and autism, your own leadership might fight you on that because of the financial influence, the pharmaceutical industry
Dave Weldon: They wouldn’t fight you. They’d kill it. It's dead. They don't even want to discuss it. It's dead on arrival. If you, if you as an individual member want to take on the pharmaceutical industries. It's forget it.
Sharyl: Can you describe an incident or just how it, how that would go?
Weldon: It would typically be in a hallway or the street and people would come up to you and say, “You know, you really need to, you know, back off on this. It could be, it could be bad for the community or bad for the country or bad for you.”
Weldon says he’s generally pro-vaccine, depending on the patient and the shot—and gives flu shots to adults. We asked him to review Dr. Zimmerman’s new affidavit.
Weldon: I found his affidavit and testimony through that affidavit to be consistent with my opinions. That some children can get an autism spectrum disorder from a vaccine.
Republican Bill Posey is a current member of Congress.
Rep. Bill Posey: I don’t have to tell you that industry is a very, very powerful industry. Matter of fact, I don’t know of anyone more powerful than that industry.
Posey says his own party leaders twice promised to hold hearings on the topic, only to scuttle them in the end.
Hazlehurst – who happens to be a criminal prosecutor-- was scheduled to be a witness at one such Congressional hearing. Two weeks before the hearing in 2013, he briefed Congressional staff.
Hazlehurst: I presented at that Congressional briefing and I explained in that hearing, if I did to a criminal in a court of law what the United States Department of Justice did to vaccine injured children, I would be disbarred and I would be facing criminal charges. I think that scared the hell out of them.
The hearing was abruptly cancelled. Meantime, Dr. Zimmerman – the one-time expert used to debunk vaccine autism claims—now says several of his own patients got autism from vaccines. They include Yates Hazlehurst.
Today, with intensive treatment, Yates is doing better. His dad hopes the new testimony from a most unlikely source will get new attention.
Hazlehurst: A child that was unnecessarily sacrificed and hopefully some good, will come from his suffering.
The lobby group representing the pharmaceutical industry wouldn’t agree to an interview but told us they’re working with Congress and other stakeholders on the importance and safety of vaccines to support the health and safety of individuals and communities.