Dr. Bernadine Healy (the former head of the National Institutes of Health) had a slightly different take in my interview with her several months ago. Dr. Healy agreed that vaccines are immeasurably important to the nation, and that most children appear to tolerate immunizations well. However, Dr. Healy also boldly criticized public health leaders at large for what she saw as their failure to "follow the science;" a failure to conduct appropriate additional research to find out whether a subset of children have genetic and/or biological vulnerabilities that make them susceptible to developing autism, ADD and/or other disorders after vaccination. Dr. Healy argued that such research should have begun years ago because if those vulnerabilities can be identified "those children can be saved."
Dr. Healy's point was punctuated by a case in federal vaccine court, the case of Hannah Poling, in which the government conceded that her autism was a result of her vaccinations. The government agreed that a pre-existing but unknown condition in the child had caused her to have a bad reaction to her multiple vaccinations, resulting in autism. Other vaccine court cases compensated by the government (as reported previously by CBS News) involved children who developed autism or autistic symptoms after vaccination and vaccine illnesses such as encephalopathy or seizures. At least one case dealt with a child who, like Hannah Poling, had a pre-existing medical condition; but the pre-existing condition was different than Hannah's. Dr. Healy echoed what some parents, scientists and doctors had been saying for years: such cases raise the question as to how many known and unknown pre-existing conditions in children could affect their ability to tolerate certain vaccinations. Some public health officials have called the vaccine court cases "exceptions", and say they do not prove any link between vaccination and various disorders.
Now, there's an indication that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) believes, like their former Director Dr. Healy, that there are still many important unanswered questions. The NIH recently posteda solicitation for grants to conduct new research on vaccine safety. Specifically, NIH is looking to advance research into issues such as, "physiological and immunological responses to vaccines and vaccine components…how genetic variations affect immune/physiological responses that may affect vaccine safety...identification of risk factors and biological markers that may be used to assess whether there is a relationship between certain diseases or disorders and licensed vaccines..." and more. These are the very areas Dr. Healy said require further study, and areas in which some parents, scientists and doctors have been pushing for study for years.
In posting its grant solicitation for vaccine research, the NIH noted: "The science of vaccinology is dynamic – it unfolds as technology enables scientists to continue to create safer and more effective vaccines." This is another point Dr. Healy had made: technology exists today that did not exist a decade ago, technology that enables scientists to "personalize" medicine (take into account an individual's biology when treating him/her) and also to improve the safety of existing vaccines. Vaccines are relatively quite safe, Dr. Healy stated, but if they can be made safer, why not improve them?
Due to the nature of science and studies, it will likely be years before the NIH gets the answers to some of the scientific questions it has posed. Perhaps the studies will be able to definitively rule out links between vaccines and assorted illnesses in subsets of children. In that case, the studies might be able to direct scientists as to what other areas should be examined as sources and causes of mysterious disorders. On the other hand, perhaps the studies will identify conditions and factors that make children more likely to suffer vaccine side effects, and provide direction as to how those vulnerable children can best be protected while continuing a strong immunization program. Both sides in the debates over vaccine safety will be eagerly awaiting these answers.