Autism & Vaccines: Beating a Horse that Won’t Die

March 10, 2008

There was widespread coverage this week of a 9 year old Georgia girl whose family received a settlement from the vaccine injury fund (Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Vaccine Injury Compensation) after investigators conceded that her autism was linked to a bevy (some say 5, some say 9) of thimerosal-containing-vaccinations she received at 19 months old. Scientists are saying that in this case that the patient had an underlying cause – a mitochondrial disorder – that predisposed her to this development (see the Genetic Polymorphism section of my original vaccine post). Whether this condition was aggravated by the thimerosal or the effect of the vaccines on her immune system is unclear, though in some articles it is implied that it was more likely brought on by the stress of her body’s immune response to the shots. While this does seem like a more plausible connection many parents will not let go of the thimerosal link despite statistics that indicate otherwise.

WebMD: Thimerosal Down but Autism Rising

FDA Thimerosal in Vaccines

I have synthesized some of the mainstream coverage of this case pulling out excerpts from each article. The excerpts are not necessarily indicative of the conclusions reached for each source but rather interesting pieces of a large, often misleading, emotional, very confusing puzzle.

AJC

The language in the document does not establish a clear-cut vaccine-autism link. But it does say the government concluded that vaccines aggravated a rare underlying metabolic condition that resulted in a brain disorder “with features of autism spectrum disorder.”

New York Times

There are two theories about what happened to Hannah, said her mother, Terry Poling. The first is that she had an underlying mitochondrial disorder that vaccinations aggravated. The second is that vaccinations caused this disorder.

WebMD interview with the girl’s father, a neurologist

The experience with Hannah, Poling says, has not turned him against vaccines. “I want to make it clear I am not anti-vaccine,” he says. “Vaccines are one of the most important, if not the most important advance, in medicine in at least the past 100 years. But I don’t think that vaccines should enjoy a sacred cow status, where if you attack them you are out of mainline medicine.”

CNN

“…within 48 hours after receiving nine routinely administered childhood vaccines in July 2000, the girl’s health rapidly declined, she said.”

NPR

CDC officials decline to talk about the Poling case, but they say it should not be used to draw conclusions about risks for other children.

Washington Independent

Over the past decade, nearly 5,000 claims from parents with kids on the autism spectrum have flooded the court. To deal with these numbers, the court set up an Omnibus proceeding, similar to those established to deal with asbestosis claims. The court has been planning to run nine test cases out of the bunch. These test cases, which deal with various theories of how the vaccines might have caused autism, would then be used to resolve the thousands of other cases.

The Washington Independent article is titled “A Reopened Can of Worms.” Anyone who thinks this particular can of worms was ever closed back up hasn’t been paying attention. I have friends who don’t even have kids yet that are worried about vaccinating their future hypothetical children. Other parents, including some who have advanced degrees in health related fields, are leaving pediatricians who deride them for questioning the vaccine schedule or wanting to spread out vaccines. Many who believe that some of these patients’ autism is being caused by the immune response to so many shots being given at once hypothesize that spreading the shots out would decrease that perceived risk.

Spreading out vaccines does place a greater burden on the public health system and a greater burden on individual practices who have to absorb the additional time required to spread the vaccines out. Because of this it is easy to understand from a logistical standpoint practitioners resisting this movement. Additionally spreading out vaccines could make it harder to track what an individual child has had, as well as place an undue burden on poor families who would not want to pay for multiple “well baby” visits.

In order to come up with an effective solution practitioners, patients and public health entities – government related or not – need to rebuild mutual trust and respect and tackle this growing fear and growing problem of autism together.

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One Response to “Autism & Vaccines: Beating a Horse that Won’t Die”

  1. scilight Says:

    Thanks for your summary of some of the media’s misinformation mongering. As a pediatrician I face a daily throng of misinformed and frightened parents, wanting to do what’s right for their children, but utterly ignorant about the science, and pulled in by the dangerous vortex of media and support group spin. The “fair and balanced” journalistic approach fails miserably when it come to the vaccine/autism issue, just as it does for many other science related issues. The fallacy of a debate or a controversy here would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous a mistake the media is making.


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