Settlement In Case Fuels Contentions of an Autism-Vaccine Link
> 3/10/2008 1:46:42 PM

Senator John McCain stirred up a frenzied discussion last week when he linked vaccines and autism. While the scientific community considers this link to be implausible because numerous studies have not found any correlation, the reactions of the public showed that the debate has not been settled in many minds. Stirring up those who support the link even further, the government revealed last week that it has agreed to pay a settlement to parents who claim that their daughter developed autistic spectrum symptoms because of vaccines.

While this settlement may seem like an admission, Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stated: "Let me be very clear that the government has made absolutely no statement indicating that vaccines are a cause of autism." This apparent contradiction can be explained by the exceptional nature of the medical problem alleged in the lawsuit. The case revolves around Hannah Poling, who seemed to be developing perfectly until she received five shots when she was 19 months old. Two days after the shots, she was gripped by a fever and her mental health slowly degenerated to a disabled level from which she never recovered. Laboratory tests revealed that she had a rare type of mitochondrial disorder. Her verbal and social skills were severely impaired, leading doctors to diagnose her with "regressive encephalopathy with features consistent with an autistic spectrum disorder, following normal development."

It is important to understand exactly what this diagnosis means. The autistic spectrum is a constellation of symptoms rather than a single problem with a single cause. The spectrum disorders include autism, as well as Asperger syndrome and PDD-NOS. Thus, the government can admit that Hannah suffers symptoms from the autistic spectrum without saying that she actually has the disorder commonly referred to as autism.

Even if Hannah were diagnosed with a definitive autistic disorder, her case could not prove that vaccines commonly cause autism. Her mitochondrial disorder is rare, and the vast majority of children with autism do not have it. Some doctors have speculated that the vaccines created or exacerbated the disorder, causing her mitochondria to fail to supply her brain with adequate energy. Vaccines have never been observed to cause this kind of breakdown, but the government believed in this specific case that it was plausible enough that settling with the Poling family was a better option than forcing a trial.

Hannah's parents were paid out of a fund for the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. The existence of this fund shows that the government is aware that vaccinations come with some risk. However, the few adverse reactions are far outweighed by the millions of children that are saved every year from life-threatening viruses. The incidence of polio alone has fallen from 350,000 to 1,000 because of vaccination. The Poling case does not establish a link between vaccines and autism, but it does remind us that every medical procedure, no matter how beneficial on average, carries some risk.

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