As the journal Pediatrics released the latest installment of what can only be called "head-in-the-sand autism science," the U.S. Vaccine Court in Washington D.C. reiterated a previous ruling that a vaccine did cause a Georgia girl's autism. And this time the "Special Masters," as the judges are called, assigned damages for that vaccine-induced injury at $20 million, more or less.
The case involves a girl named Hannah Poling, whose parents in 2002 sought compensation for the autistic symptoms she developed after receiving five shots with nine doses of vaccines in a single visit to her pediatrician when she was 19 months old. Her family -- father Jon is a neurologist -- presented such an airtight case that the government did not contest it.
"The government conceded that Hannah Poling's pre-existing mitochondrial disorder was aggravated by the MMR vaccine, which led to a brain disorder that manifested itself 'with features of autism spectrum disorder.'"
Under federal law, the only recourse families have when they suspect a vaccine caused their child's injuries is to petition the federal government in what is commonly called Vaccine Court, officially known as the Vaccine Program/Office of Special Claims.
The congressionally mandated court was established in 1988 to inoculate the vaccine industry against damage claims alleging harm from childhood immunizations. In the court's words, the program is "a no-fault compensation scheme whereby persons allegedly suffering injury or death as a result of the administration of certain compulsory childhood vaccines may petition the federal government for monetary damages."
"Accordingly, a determination of damages is appropriate," the court ruled.
In a decision issued Aug. 27, 2010, and reported by CBS News's Sharyl Attkisson on Sept. 9, the court noted that the government conceded that Hannah Poling's pre-existing mitochondrial disorder was aggravated by the MMR vaccine, which led to a brain disorder that manifested itself "with features of autism spectrum disorder" and a "partial seizure disorder."
The government then offered the Poling family a one-time, up-front payment of $1.5 million for "life care expenses" already accumulated, lost future earnings and pain and suffering, with annual payments starting at $579,525 in 2011 and increasing each year of Hannah's life. The Polings accepted.
Claims are paid from a fund that has accumulated $2.5 billion through a 75-cent-per-dose tax on vaccines. Attkisson said those familiar with the case "believe the compensation could easily amount to $20 million over the child's lifetime."
Contrary to what the media have reported, the Poling case was not without precedent. In a linguistically tortured ruling, the Vaccine Court on Feb. 20, 2007, found that a seizure following a measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shot caused another child's regression into a condition the court case called Pervasive Developmental Delay (PDD).
The child, Bailey Banks, suffered Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis (ADEM) as a result of his MMR shot, which led to his PDD, the Vaccine Court ruled. ADEM is a neurological disorder characterized by a swelling of the brain and spinal cord.
"Contrary to what the media have reported, the Poling case was not without precedent."
"Bailey's ADEM was caused-in-fact and proximately caused by his vaccination," the ruling said. "It is well understood that the vaccination at issue can cause ADEM, and the Court finds, on the record filed herein, that it did actually cause the ADEM."
But while the ruling specifically cites "non-autistic developmental delay" in its heading, it also acknowledges that Pervasive Developmental Delay is not a diagnosis and that the parties and the medical records in the case really refer to Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).
In a footnote explaining the distinction, the court notes that PDD-NOS is often referred to as "atypical autism." And in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-4), the ruling continues, the term encompasses "cases where there is marked impairment of social interaction, communication, and/or stereotyped behavior patterns or interest, but when full features for autism or another explicitly defined PDD are not met."
In point of diagnostic fact, PDD-NOS is one of five disorders that comprise what are collectively called Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Indeed, the American Psychiatric Association has proposed revisions to the DSM-5 that would "subsume" PDD-NOS into the Autistic Disorder category.
PDD-NOS is a form of autism, regardless of the legal jargon used to dissociate the two. A primary difference between PDD-NOS and Autistic Disorder is that PDD-NOS symptoms can appear later in a child's life than in Autistic Disorder, which now must appear by age 3. The proposed DSM-5 changes replace that with "early childhood."
Four days after Attkisson's piece on Hannah Poling, Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), released yet another study purporting to show "no increased risk" of autism from the injection of mercury-containing childhood vaccines into children's developing bodies.
"Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), released yet another study purporting to show 'no increased risk' of autism from the injection of mercury-containing childhood vaccines into children's developing bodies."
On Sept. 13, HealthDay News quoted senior study author Dr. Frank DeStefano, director of the immunization safety office at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): "Prenatal and early life exposure to ethylmercury from thimerosal in vaccines or immunoglobulin products does not increase a child's risk of developing autism."
Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative used in childhood vaccines from the 1930s to this day. In 1990, the number of vaccinations American children receive began rising from 11 then to 36 today. A recent analysis of worldwide autism incidence studies by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) researchers found the epidemic of ASDs began around 1988 or 1989.
The new Pediatrics study, which compared 256 children with autism with 752 controls, is just another in a long series of "case-control" studies that compares those who develop a disease or condition with others who do not.
Case-control studies measure relative risk, not cause and effect. By design, they assume that every subject is equal in terms of susceptibility to the condition being studied. They say Bailey Banks, Hannah Poling and the 752 kids in the Pediatrics study who did not regress into autism are equally at risk of developing autism from mercury, aluminum, live viruses or any of the several dozen substances in vaccines.
But as the Poling Vaccine Court ruling clearly suggests, children are not created equal when it comes to their reactions to vaccines. Most do not have Hannah Poling's underlying mitochondrial condition, which predisposed her to autism as a consequence of exposure to something in her vaccines.
Mitochondrial disorders are inherited, and the Poling case lends support to the prevailing theory that autism is caused by genetic predisposition to the disorder that is triggered by environmental factors. And as Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of the National Institutes of Health, told Attkisson in July 2008, answers about vaccine safety lie in the kids who regressed into autism after their shots, not in those who didn't.
"This is the time when we do have the opportunity to understand whether or not there are susceptible children, perhaps genetically," Healy said. "Perhaps they have a metabolic issue, a mitochondrial disorder, an immunological issue that makes them more susceptible to vaccines."
MMR vaccines have never contained mercury and aluminum, two known neurotoxins at the center of the autism-vaccine controversy. But that doesn't mean those substances did not cause or contribute to Hannah Poling's autism.
The Vaccine Court identified the MMR shot as a contributing factor in her regression. But she received five shots with nine doses of vaccines immediately before it happened. Three -- diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus -- contained mercury and aluminum.
"As the Poling Vaccine Court ruling clearly suggests, children are not created equal when it comes to their reactions to vaccines."
More research has been done on mercury than most, if not all, of the 80,000-plus manmade toxins the EPA allows industries to release into the environment on a daily basis. Researchers at the University of Calgary have videotaped the heavy metal destroying a neuron.
And yet, for decades, literally up to today, the AAP and its member pediatricians have insisted that mercury-containing vaccines are 100 percent safe, and the public should stop questioning them on it. In March, the Vaccine Court rejected more than 5,000 cases alleging a connection between thimerosal and autism.
Still, a pediatrician inflicted $20 million worth of harm on Hannah Poling, who is but one of tens of thousands of children in America who regressed into autism following their vaccinations. No one knows what underlying, genetic conditions those kids, or the kids with autism in the Pediatrics study, might have.
If the AAP would end the denial and study the children pediatricians may have harmed instead of the ones they haven't, they could advance science instead of sowing doubts about its integrity, and perhaps avoid harming others.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .