The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program Gives Hope to Parents of Children with Autism

Bernadine Healy, “Fighting the Autism-Vaccine War,” U.S. News & World Report, April 10, 2008. Copyright © 2008 U.S. News and World Report, L.P. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


“[The vaccine court’s Hannah Poling case] was a vindication for families who have been battling with the vaccine community, arguing that some poorly understood reaction to components of vaccines … could cause brain injury.”


The Hannah Poling case, in which the vaccine court concluded that vaccines led to Hannah’s autistic behavior, was a positive step for those parents who have long believed in the connection between vaccines and autism, maintains Bernadine Healy in the following viewpoint. Vaccines have historically been linked to neurological reactions, which led to a vaccine court. Despite claims by traditional medical organizations that there is no vaccine-autism link, she reasons that the case offers hope for those who disagree. Healy is a cardiologist and health policy analyst.

As you read, consider the following questions:

  1. According to Healy, why do some dismiss Hannah Poling as an anomaly?
  2. What does the author think is the problem with population studies of vaccines?
  3. In the author’s opinion, what calls into question the universal vaccination strategy?

One of the most vitriolic debates in medical history is just beginning to have its day in court—vaccine court, that is. Without laying blame, the independent Office of Special Masters of the Court of Federal Claims—with a 20-year record of handling vaccine matters—recently conceded that the brain damage and autistic behavior of Hannah Poling stemmed from her exposure as a toddler to five vaccinations on one day in July 2000. Two days later, she was overtaken by a high fever and an encephalopathy that deteriorated into autistic behavior. Even though autism has a strong genetic basis, and she has a coexisting rare mitochondrial disorder, I would not be too quick to dismiss Hannah as an anomaly.


At some level, the decision was a vindication for families who have been battling with the vaccine community, arguing that some poorly understood reaction to components of vaccines or their mercury-based preservative, thimerosal, could cause brain injury. Yes, vaccines are extraordinarily safe and bring huge public health benefit. (Remember the 1950s polio epidemics?) But vaccine experts tend to look at the population as a whole, not at individual patients. And population studies are not granular enough to detect individual metabolic, genetic, or immunological variation that might make some children under certain circumstances susceptible to neurological complications after vaccination.


A Trigger?
Families are not alone in searching for a trigger that might explain why autism and autism spectrum disorders have skyrocketed; now they reportedly affect about 1 in 150 kids. No doubt some of the increase is soft, due to broader diagnostic criteria, greater awareness, and—now that the notion of a detached “refrigerator” mom as a cause has blessedly fallen by the wayside—greater openness. But the rise of this disorder, which shows up before age 3, happens to coincide with the increased number and type of vaccine shots in the first few years of life. So as a trigger, vaccines carry a ring of both historical and biological plausibility.


Go back 40 or 50 years. The medical literature is replete with reports of neurological reactions to vaccines, such as mood changes, seizures, brain inflammation, and swelling. Several hundred cases of the paralytic illness Guillain-Barré after the swine flu vaccine were blamed on the government and gave [former president] Gerald Ford heartburn—but eventually led to the vaccine court.


Pediatricians were concerned enough about mercury, which is known to cause neurological damage in developing infant and fetal brains, that they mobilized to have thimerosal removed from childhood vaccines by 2002. Their concern was not autism but the lunacy of injecting mercury into little kids through mandated vaccines that together exceeded mercury safety guidelines designed for adults. But as in all things vaccine, this move too was contentious. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization remain unconvinced that thimerosal puts young children at risk.


A Need for More Research
There is no evidence that removal of thimerosal from vaccines has lowered autism rates. But autism numbers are not precise, so I would say that considerably more research is still needed on some provocative findings. After all, thimerosal crosses the placenta, and pregnant women are advised to get flu shots, which often contain it. Studies in mice suggest that genetic variation influences brain sensitivity to the toxic effects of mercury. And a primate study designed to mimic vaccination in infants reported in 2005 that thimerosal may clear from the blood in a matter of days but leaves inorganic mercury behind in the brain.


The debate roils on—even about research. The Institute of Medicine [IOM] in its last report on vaccines and autism in 2004 said that more research on the vaccine question is counterproductive: Finding a susceptibility to this risk in some infants would call into question the universal vaccination strategy that is a bedrock of immunization programs and could lead to widespread rejection of vaccines. The IOM concluded that efforts to find a link between vaccines and autism “must be balanced against the broader benefit of the current vaccine program for all children.”


Wow. Medicine has moved ahead only because doctors, researchers, and yes, families, have openly challenged even the most sacred medical dogma. At the risk of incurring the wrath of some of my dearest colleagues, I say thank goodness for the vaccine court.




FURTHER READINGS


Books

  • Sue Adams A Book About What Autism Can Be Like. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley, 2009.
  • Peter Roger Breggin Brain-Disabling Treatments in Psychiatry: Drugs, Electroshock, and the Psychopharmaceutical Complex. New York: Spring, 2008.
  • Penny Coleman Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War. Boston: Beacon, 2006.
  • Ruth Colker When Is Separate Unequal? A Disability Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Robert M. Collie Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A Guide for Family, Friends, and Pastors. New York: Haworth Pastoral Press, 2005.
  • Peter Conrad Identifying Hyperactive Children: The Medicalization of Deviant Behavior. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006.
  • Peter Conrad The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
  • Michelle Genevieve Craske Origins of Phobias and Anxiety Disorders: Why More Women Than Men? Boston: Elsevier, 2003.
  • Padmal De Silva Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: The Facts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Barbara Firestone Autism Heroes: Portraits of Families Meeting the Challenge. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley, 2007.
  • Stephen Ray Flora Taking America Off Drugs: Why Behavioral Therapy Is More Effective for Treating ADHD, OCD, Depression, and Other Psychological Problems. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007.
  • Ross W. Greene Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them. New York: Scribner, 2008.
  • Roy Richard Grinker Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism. New York: Basic, 2006.
  • Lara Honos-Webb The Gift of ADHD: How to Transform Your Child’s Problems into Strengths. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2005.
  • David Kirby Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy. New York: St. Martin’s, 2005.
  • Robert McNergney and Clayton Keller, eds. Images of Mainstreaming: Educating Students with Disabilities. New York: Routledge, 1999.
  • Joel T. Nigg What Causes ADHD? Understanding What Goes Wrong and Why. New York: Guilford, 2006.
  • Thomas G. Plante, ed. Mental Disorders of the New Millennium. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.
  • Donna Satterlee Ross and Kelly Ann Jolly, eds. That’s Life with Autism: Tales and Tips for Families with Autism. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2006.
  • Robert C. Scaer The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease. New York: Haworth Medical Press, 2007.
  • Karen M. Seeley Therapy After Terror: 9/11, Psychotherapists, and Mental Health. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Terri Tanielian and Lisa H. Jaycox, eds. Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2008.
  • Carol Turkington and Ruth Anan The A to Z of Autism Spectrum Disorders. New York: Checkmark, 2007.
  • Leeann Whiffen A Child’s Journey Out of Autism: One Family’s Story of Living in Hope and Finding a Cure. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2009.
  • Nancy D. Wiseman and Kim Painter Koffsky Could It Be Autism? A Parent’s Guide to the First Signs and Next Steps. New York: Broadway Books, 2006.
  • Andrew W. Zimmerman, ed. Autism: Current Theories and Evidence. Totowa, NJ: Humana, 2008.

Periodicals

  • Jill Carroll “‘We’re Going to Be Paying for This for a While’: Soldiers Bring the War Home,” Christian Science Monitor, January 1, 2009.
  • Sharon Cotliar “Autism & Vaccines: One Family’s Victory,” People, March 24, 2008.
  • Conor B. McDonough “The Mainstreaming Requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Act in the Context of Autism Spectrum Disorders,” Fordham Urban Law Review, October 2008.
  • Elizabeth Mechcatie “New Warning OK for ADHD Drugs, But No Black Box: FDA Pediatric Panel Gives Second Opinion,” Pediatric News, April 2006.
  • Anton Miller “Special Needs Debate Doesn’t Need Ideology,” Vancouver Sun, March 5, 2007.
  • Paul Offit “Autism and Vaccines—A Careless Ruling,” Dallas Morning News, April 7, 2008.
  • Paul T. Shattuck and Maureen Durkin “A Spectrum of Disputes,” New York Times, June 11, 2007.
  • Stephen D. Sugarman “Cases in Vaccine Court—Legal Battles Over Vaccines and Autism,” New England Journal of Medicine, September 27, 2007.
  • Elizabeth A. Yi “Vaccine Lawsuit Hazards,” Washington Times, June 8, 2008.
  • Alison Young “First Autism-Vaccine Link: How Hannah Made History,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 6, 2008.



Source Citation:
Bernadine Healy. “The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program Gives Hope to Parents of Children with Autism.” Opposing Viewpoints: Behavioral Disorders. Ed. Louise I. Gerdes. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2010. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. Apollo Library-Univ of Phoenix. 15 Nov. 2009 .

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