Debate Over Vaccines And Autism/ADD

The debate over vaccines and autism/ADD is so sensitive that for some who are directly affected: it's gotten personal. No more personal, perhaps, than for the parents of Hannah Poling. Hannah developed autism as a toddler after a battery of vaccines. In a landmark case last fall, the federal government (which defends vaccines in federal vaccine court) quietly conceded that vaccinations resulted in Hannah's autism. The government has portrayed Poling's case as an exception because she had an undiagnosed condition (that may have been pre-existing): mitochondrial disorder. Many scientists and government officials agree with vaccine makers in portraying Poling as a "special case" that can "not be extrapolated to other vaccine-autism cases."

But the concession was significant for many reasons. First, for a decade the government has insisted there is no possible link between vaccines and autism, but was now conceding-- and agreeing to pay damages-- in such a case. Even if the case is some sort of "exception," it runs counter to the longstanding claim that no possible link exists. Simply put: the old position was "there's no way vaccines can result in autism," but the government's new position seems to be, "it may have happened once but it doesn't really mean anything in the big picture." Second, Hannah was an autism "test case" in federal vaccine court. By conceding the case, the government avoided a test case trial that -- by its own calculations -- the government would likely have lost. Hannah's case would have then served as a high-profile precedent, giving guidance on any other cases similar among the thousands of autism claims pending in vaccine court.

When news that the government had conceded Hannah's case leaked out to the public a few months ago, those who reject any possible link between vaccines and autism/ADD went on the offensive. Among other things, they worry that if parents are needlessly scared away from vaccinations, they will stop immunizing and risk deadly diseases re-emerging into our society.

Yale University School of Medicine academic clinical neurologist, Dr. Steven Novella writes a blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience. He recently posted commentary about what he calls, celebrities "promoting the false controversy about a link between vaccines and autism."

Hannah's Father, Dr. Jon Poling, a neurologist and a PhD, wrote a letter to Dr. Novella that shows just how complex the scientific question of Autism is. Poling writes, "Regarding your entry on Hannah's case, your blog entry unfortunately propagates several of the mistakes from the media."

Some unresolved questions that are being asked in the debate: Was Hannah's mitochondrial disorder a biological weakness that was exploited by vaccines, resulting in autism? If so, does that confirm Hannah was an exception and other children are not to worry? Does it imply there is a small subset of children with unknown and known biological and genetic weaknesses who could similarly be at special risk when vaccinated? As of now, according to government officials, they are not studying cases of alleged autism resulting from vaccine damage. In fact, the government told CBS News it has not even tracked how many brain damage claims that have been paid in federal vaccine court resulted in autism. As the former head of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Bernadine Healy has said: perhaps some answers to the autism/ADD mystery are waiting, but you have to go looking to find them.

Watch the CBS Evening News tonight for Sharyl's Follow the Money Investigation on some of the surprising places where vaccine industry money ends up.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.