iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
David Kirby

GET UPDATES FROM David Kirby
 

The Next Vaccine-Autism Newsmaker: Not Isolated, Not Unusual

Posted: 04/27/08 02:04 AM ET

In February, I leaked news of the Federal government's admission that vaccines had triggered autism in a little girl named Hannah Poling. The stunning revelation, though still reverberating around the world, was roundly downplayed by US officials, who insisted that Hannah had an extremely rare, genetic case of "aggravated" mitochondrial disorder, with zero bearing on other autism cases.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rushed to the airwaves, exhorting parents to adhere to the nation's intensive and virtually mandatory immunization schedule, and brushing off their legitimate anxieties by saying: "We've got to set aside this very isolated, unusual situation."

Well, the days of setting aside are over: Hannah Poling is neither isolated nor unusual.

In fact, the boy who was selected to replace Hannah Poling as the first-ever thimerosal "test case" in so-called Vaccine Court, has just been found with many of the same unusual metabolic markers as... you guessed it, Hannah Poling.

Hannah's case was scheduled to be heard in Federal Claims Court on May 12 -- as one of three "test cases" of the theory that thimerosal (a mercury-based vaccine preservative) can cause autism.

Test cases will help address general causation issues in all 4,900 autism claims now pending in Vaccine Court. But following the government concession, Hannah was withdrawn as the first test case of the thimerosal theory, and attorneys scrambled to find a replacement: a young boy from New York.

Last week, however, the court announced that the replacement thimerosal test case was also being withdrawn, in order to "proceed to an individual hearing on a different theory of causation."

That theory, which applies to Hannah as well, maintains that children with dysfunctional mitochondria (the little batteries within each cell that convert food into energy) are susceptible to autistic regression, triggered by a vaccine-induced overtaxing of the immune system.

"We want to pursue an additional theory, not a different theory," the boy's father told me. "We are by no means abandoning the thimerosal theory of causation but, in the context of the test case, the thimerosal theory would have eclipsed our other evidence, including evidence of metabolic dysfunction," such as impaired mitchondria and low cellular energy.

Following the Poling concession, he said, "I saw right away that we needed to pursue the mitochondrial theory,"but the lead attorneys did not see it that way. "Perhaps they did not properly understand the concession, and believed the finding was of a rare, genetically caused mitochondrial disorder," as the government contends. "I think they rightly want to keep clear focus on thimerosal in the test case, and not muddy the presentation with other theories."

The court's test case process is unusual and unwieldy. "They limit the cases to one theory at a time, when the theories are not mutually exclusive," the father said. "For example, thimerosal could cause, contribute to, or aggravate mitochondrial dysfunction. These cases can't be wrapped into neat
little packages."

The unexpected withdrawal of two test cases in a row - both because of their apparent mitochondrial underpinnings - is sure to have larger ramifications in the Court of Federal Claims, as well as the much larger court of public opinion.

A new, additional theory of causation is about to be introduced in Vaccine Court: Vaccines can trigger a chain of events in children with mitochondrial dysfunction that causes autism.

But the US Government now has a major quandary to deal with. Federal officials already conceded that, far from being "theoretical," this chain of events already happened to Hannah Poling. This will make it difficult, if not impossible, to argue against compensating the boy from New York, when compensating a nearly identical case - Hannah Poling - was already deemed appropriate.

Some estimates of mitochondrial dysfunction in children with autism range as high as 20%-30%. But among the regressive subset of cases (virtually all of the claims in Vaccine Court) up to half of the children might show signs of it.

No one knows how many of those families will pursue a similar strategy of individual hearings on causation, based on the mitochondrial concession in the Poling case. But my guess is that there could be hundreds of them, following in the precedent of this case's footsteps. The legal ramifications, inside Vaccine Court and throughout the judicial system, remain incalculable at this point.

Still, when the American public finds out that the exceedingly "rare" Poling case was replaced by what is shaping up to be yet another exceedingly rare case - they will follow the lead of all three presidential candidates and finally reject the tired mantra that, "there is no link" between vaccines and autism.

Then perhaps will end, "One of the most vitriolic debates in medical history," as it is called by Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of the NIH and the Red Cross. "At some level," she said, the Poling case "was a vindication for families," adding that, "vaccines as a trigger carry a ring of both historical and biological plausibility."

The government is currently examining the national vaccine schedule to see if we are, perhaps, immunizing children too early and too often (and with too much thimerosal from the flu shot).

I personally thought that one Hannah Poling emerging out of Vaccine Court would be enough to
change the way we vaccinate in this country. But now we have two. And there are many more Hannah's out there, waiting to be counted.

NOTE: The UK's Sunday Sun writes about the controversy today, and mentions the second test case being withdrawn.

This was originally posted at Spectrum Publications.