say a Georgia girl is entitled to compensation from a federal vaccine injury
fund because she developed autism-like symptoms after receiving childhood vaccines
The parents of 9-year-old Hannah Poling are expected to relay their
appreciation that "a move toward justice has been made" in a news
conference today, says John Gilmore, executive director of Autism United, a
coalition of autism groups.
The government has not said that childhood vaccines cause autism ; rather,
officials conclude that the vaccines given to the girl in 2000 aggravated a
pre-existing condition that then manifested as autism spectrum disorder .
Those who believe there is a vaccine-autism link call the decision a
victory, but those who see no link worry that parents will once again shy away
from childhood vaccines.
The Back Story
Autism and autism spectrum disorders begin before the age of 3, according to
the CDC, and include a group of developmental disabilities marked by great
difficulty in social interaction and communication. Difficulties on the
spectrum range from mild to severe.
The disorder is on the rise, with one in 150 children now diagnosed with
autism spectrum disorders, according to the CDC.
Suspicion of a vaccine link with autism has been ongoing at numerous
advocacy groups, who believe that thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative
used in some vaccines, is to blame. There is increasing concern and an
increasing awareness of the theoretical potential for neurotoxicity. The
preservative, used in vaccines since the 1930s, has been removed or reduced to
trace amounts in all vaccines recommended for children 6 years of age or
younger, with the exception of inactivated flu vaccine . A
preservative-free version of the inactivated flu vaccine is available.
Advocacy groups against childhood vaccines take issue with other vaccine
components as well.
Autism Groups: Decision a Victory
Sallie Bernard, co-founder of SafeMinds (Sensible Action for Ending
Mercury-Induced Neurological Disorders), is ecstatic about the decision.
"We're finally seeing the truth come out," she tells WebMD. "We've
gotten such incredible pushback, yet here is a case showing this connection
"Here is a case that really looked into the science, and behind this
child's case of autism, they have found a link between the child's autism and
the vaccines that she was given," she says.
Bernard says she hopes the decision will spur re-investigation of the issue.
"I think this will push more scientists and hopefully the NIH [National
Institutes of Health] to really investigate the role of vaccines, the role of
mercury, in autism, because this case is so compelling."
Autism Expert: Case Is "Rare"
A pediatrician who serves on a childhood vaccine advisory committee for the
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sees the case differently. "To
say mercury causes autism is a giant leap," says Jaime Deville, MD, a
pediatrician at Mattel Children's Hospital at the University of California Los
"Epidemiological studies do not support the hypothesis that mercury in
vaccines causes autism in the general population,'' he tells WebMD.
"However, there might be individual sporadic, or rare cases in which
patients have an adverse reaction after a dose of a vaccine that might
exacerbate a pre-existing condition."
That was the contention in Hannah's case -- that Hannah developed a disorder
of the mitochondria, the cells' "power sources," before developing
autism-like symptoms. Mitochondrial disorders are rare, affecting one in every
2,000 to 4,000 people. However, the number of children with autism affected by
mitochondrial disorders is about one in five.
In a statement, Chuck Mohan, executive director and CEO of the United
Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, says science hs not linked vaccines to
"There are no scientific studies documenting that childhood vaccinations
cause or worsen mitochondrial diseases, but there is very little scientific
research in this area," the statement reads. "Mitochondrial
diseases are as prevalent as childhood leukemia, however the National
Institutes of Health devotes only $11 million a year to research into
mitochondrial disorders and only about one-third of that is earmarked for
primary mitochondrial disease research. Many scientists believe unmasking
the causes of mitochondrial disease may lead to possible cures for Parkinson's,
Alzheimer's, heart disease and cancer."
Deville worries that parents will again shy away from vaccines. "I would
expect parents to start calling pediatricians," he tells WebMD. But he adds
that Hannah's situation "seems to be an isolated case."
He also points out: "Once mercury was removed [from most childhood
vaccines] in 2001, autism cases did not decline."
He doubts that the decision will spur further research into the proposed
vaccine-autism link, partly because of a lack of research funding.
WebMD has contacted the Poling family home, requesting an interview and
additional information. A message was left with a member of the household, but
no return call has been received.
Autism-Vaccine Link: Hannah's Story
According to the government concession in the Poling case, Hannah had met
her "developmental milestones" such as crawling and walking on schedule
during her first 18 months. But two days after receiving five childhood
vaccinations in July 2000, she developed a 102.3-degree fever and became
irritable and lethargic. The symptoms continued and worsened over the next few
By the fall of 2000, the parents became worried about her language development and had
her assessed. The health care professional examining her concluded there were
deficits in communication and social development.
Complicating the picture was a history of middle ear infections which began at age 7 months, and the
need to prescribe multiple rounds of antibiotics and to insert
By February, 2001, doctors examining Hannah found that she had a persistent
loss of previously acquired language, lacked eye contact, and did not relate
well to others. She persistently screamed and arched her back. Doctors
concluded that she was developmentally delayed and had features of autism
Later in 2001, doctors found a defect in "cellular energetics" and
diagnosed a disorder of the mitochrondria.
Her father, Jon, then a neurologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore,
co-authored a paper describing how autistic spectrum disorders can be
associated with mitochondrial dysfunction. It was published in 2006 in the
Journal of Child Neurology.
Vaccine-Autism Link: More Info
The court has not yet decided on the amount of damages. That decision, those
close to the case say, could take a few months or more.
The federal Division of Vaccine Injury Compensation was set up to ensure an
adequate supply of vaccines, stabilize costs, and to provide an avenue for
individuals injured by certain vaccines.
By Kathleen Doheny
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario
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