Vaccine compensation fund to pay award to autistic girl; broad implications feared

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Although an attorney representing the federal government said that it “has not conceded that vaccines cause autism,” Associated Press headlines read that “officials concede vaccines’ link to illness like autism” (AP 3/6/08). Petitioner Hannah Joling, now 9 years old, received 5 vaccines at once in 2000. According to a document that AP obtained from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this aggravated an underlying mitochondrial disorder, causing metabolic dysfunction manifesting as worsened brain function with features of autistic spectrum disorder.

The document drew no conclusions as to the role of thimerosal. The government has previously denied any link at all between vaccine components and autism.

A Portuguese study suggested that 7% of autistic children might have a mitochondrial disorder, compared to 0.02% in the whole population.

Stories are conflicting about the time of onset of Hannah’s symptoms. Some state that she had suggestive symptoms at age 3 months; others that she was developing normally until the vaccines were given at 19 months. Her father Jon Poling, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist, and mother, who is a lawyer and nurse, contend that the vaccines were also responsible for their daughter’s mitochondrial disorder (Kent Heckenlively, Age of Autism 3/5/08).

The family has filed a request with the court to unseal the documents on the case. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which represents the government in all cases, refused to grant interviews or to explain to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution why it isn’t releasing the records (Alison Young, Atlanta Journal-Constitution 3/6/08).

The 5,000 families seeking compensation for autism or other developmental disorders they blame on vaccines are encouraged by the decision, the first of its type. However, each case needs to be proved on its own merits, and the decision is so narrowly worded that it may not be a helpful precedent.

Whatever the cause, the number of children receiving Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI) for disability has more than tripled in 20 years. In 1960, only 1.8% of U.S. children or adolescents were said by their parents to have a limitation of activity due to a health condition of more than 3 months’ duration; this rate had increased to more than 7% by 2004. Conditions include obesity, asthma (which has doubled since the 1980s), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD, affecting some 6% of schoolchildren).

Potential causative factors, according to JAMA, include maternal smoking (although its prevalence has decreased), poverty (which is stable), and “fast foods.” The only suggested role for the large increase in the number of vaccines is that less or less normal stimulation of the immune system, owing to less exposure to viral infections in early childhood, could cause greater susceptibility to allergens (JM Perrin, et al., JAMA 6/27/07).

There is also a significant increase in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes mellitus in children, at least partly attributed to obesity (RB Lipton, JAMA 6/26/07). Some wonder whether this too could have a link to vaccines. Hemophilus immunization has been associated with autoantibodies to islet cells. A Danish study recently showed an attributable risk of 2.3/100 (2.3%) of type 1 diabetes from hemophilus immunization in siblings of insulin-dependent diabetic children (JB Classen, Open Ped Med J 2/25/08).

Establishing the role of vaccines in any chronic, disabling condition could open floodgates of demand for compensation. And this single case of compensation for autism is making public health officials and pediatricians worry that parents will skip vaccinations.

A CDC panel voted unanimously to recommend influenza vaccine annually for all school-age children (WorldNetDaily 2/28/08). New Jersey officials have told parents that their babies can’t attend day care without their flu shot. Most influenza vaccine contains thimerosal.

Two other vaccine-court cases testing the alleged connection between thimerosal and autism go to trial in May.

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