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Causal inference concepts applied to three observational studies in the context of vaccine development : from theory to practice

Journal Contribution - Journal Article

Background Randomized controlled trials are considered the gold standard to evaluate causal associations, whereas assessing causality in observational studies is challenging. Methods We applied Hill's Criteria, counterfactual reasoning, and causal diagrams to evaluate a potentially causal relationship between an exposure and outcome in three published observational studies: a) one burden of disease cohort study to determine the association between type 2 diabetes and herpes zoster, b) one post-authorization safety cohort study to assess the effect of AS04-HPV-16/18 vaccine on the risk of autoimmune diseases, and c) one matched case-control study to evaluate the effectiveness of a rotavirus vaccine in preventing hospitalization for rotavirus gastroenteritis. Results Among the 9 Hill's criteria, 8 (Strength, Consistency, Specificity, Temporality, Plausibility, Coherence, Analogy, Experiment) were considered as met for study c, 3 (Temporality, Plausibility, Coherence) for study a, and 2 (Temporary, Plausibility) for study b. For counterfactual reasoning criteria, exchangeability, the most critical assumption, could not be tested. Using these tools, we concluded that causality was very unlikely in study b, unlikely in study a, and very likely in study c. Directed acyclic graphs provided complementary visual structures that identified confounding bias and helped determine the most accurate design and analysis to assess causality. Conclusions Based on our assessment we found causal Hill's criteria and counterfactual thinking valuable in determining some level of certainty about causality in observational studies. Application of causal inference frameworks should be considered in designing and interpreting observational studies.
ISSN: 1471-2288
Issue: 1
Volume: 21
Number of pages: 1
Publication year:2021