The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Vaccine plot thickens with new government study

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The timing of today’s biggest autism story is worth noting after last week’s vaccine court settlement. Many news sites are publishing a Centers for Disease Control study that found no evidence of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in most vaccines until 2001, increasing the risk of a child developing autism. The study joins several others over the last decade that reached the same conclusion.

Specifically, the study found that kids who were exposed to high levels through their own vaccinations or their mothers while pregnant, did not have a higher chance of receiving an autism diagnosis. The research used data for 1,000 U.S. children born from 1994 to 1999, about as recent as they can go with thimerosal no longer used in childhood vaccinations outside of the flu shot.

The article provides what is now a familiar background, citing the now-discredited Wakefield study of 1998 that caused parents to refrain from giving measles, mumps and rubella vaccines to their children, leading to outbreaks of all three diseases. Reuters (the outlet I’m deciphering for this story) also included a quick recap of the condition, including the scientific theory that autism is influenced by genes and the range of severity the disability inflicts on its inhabitants.

The story itself resembles many I’ve read before that also reported no link between anything related to vaccinations and autism, and odds suggest more stories will appear as the debate continues. The study is perhaps the best antidote the government could get at this moment, with the publication of last week’s settlement where the government conceded that vaccinations aggravated a child’s underlying conditions. Although they’re under the same umbrella, one item to note is the two stories dealing with two different branches of government. One dealt with the Court of Federal Claims under the judicial branch, while this story focuses on the CDC, a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services. The nature of studies would also render any conspiracy accusations ineffective, since five years of data was mined and analyzed. However, the data used should clarify the lengthy process that goes into studies, preventing factual compromises of the conclusions presented upon publication.

While the PR twist is the juiciest element upon examining the story, Reuters’ decision to recap autism again is interesting. Measuring the intelligence and memory capacity of an entire country is nearly impossible, but with news articles of any subject easily accessible online through a Google News search, combined with the coverage through traditional means, the question now could be how long does the absorption process take with topics previously unheard of. Autism has and will continue to be a complex, fascinating example, with news coverage on the subject not common until last decade. Autism’s ambiguity could also be a factor; there aren’t enough parallels to create “stereotypes.” Because no clear signals are present, knowing if and when other people encounter autistic people is extremely difficult.

As the government and other medical experts continue attempting to calm fears about vaccinations potentially harming kids, I’ll be paying attention to how many more times articles include the classic “introduction” of autism and its effects, as that will be the biggest indicator of how much knowledge the public has on the disability.

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  1. Representing the Poling decision as related to autism is just lazy journalism.

    See for example

    However, the payment does not acknowledge a vaccine-autism link. The payment was made for a mitochondrial disorder and encephalopathy which fall under a category of so-called “Table” injuries for which parents do not need to show proof that the vaccine aggravated the condition as long as it appeared within a certain amount of time after vaccination. The VICP, which was established in 1988 (US Court of Federal Claims), has made thousands of such payments since its establishment. The same court found no compelling evidence of a link between vaccination and autism in a ruling last year, which was upheld in a federal appeals court on the same day as the Poling payout decision, (27 August 2010, Associated Press).

    If we as a people are going to compensate those injured by vaccines, as we should, we should compensate highly. We can not fully compensate a person or a family for injury. For example, the cap on pain and suffering damages has not been increased in the roughly 25 years that the vaccine program has been in place.

    A Not-So-Hidden History · 2008-03-11 17:45

    The Commerce in Causation · 2008-03-24 18:30

    “The Appalling Poling Saga” · 2008-10-03 13:00
    To summarize the case history, the child in the case appeared normal and healthy, except for chronic otitis media, until about 20 months of age at which time he had a series of vaccines according to the routine vaccination schedule. Two days later the child had a fever to 102.3, was lethargic, irritable, and would arch his back when he cried. The child then developed a rash. It was later determined that the child had: “encephalopathy progressed to persistent loss of previously acquired language, eye contact, and relatedness.” The child regressed and developed symptoms similar to those of autism spectrum disorder. However, the child does not have autism – he has a regressive neurological disorder that includes blood and muscle abnormalities not seen in autism, and any clinical resemblance to autism is not a reflection of a common cause.
    He refers again to the Hannah Poling case, a girl with a mitochondrial disorder who developed a neurodegenerative disorder with “features of autism” after getting a fever from vaccines. This special case – which is not a case of autism being caused by toxins in vaccines – says nothing about the broader vaccine-autism debate. The case was settled (not judged in Poling’s favor, but settled) because both sides realized it was a special case that could not be extrapolated to other vaccine-autism cases.

    Dr. Poling is saying that his daughter’s case is not unique – that it is typical and therefore is does say something about a broader vaccine-autism connection. Hannah Poling’s history has many features that are not typical of autism – like a history of otitis media with frequent fevers, seizures, and what sounds like a rare encephalitis that probably did result from vaccines. Even if we put her mitochondrial mutation aside – this is not a typical case of autism.

    Dr. Poling also makes specific claims about the association of autism and mitochondria – which is not surprising as this is now one of the favored hypotheses of the anti-vaccine crowd, now that their mercury hypothesis has failed. He does not reference his “5-20%” figure for autistic children with mitochondrial dysfunction. The highest figure I could find was 7.2%. I admit I am not familiar enough with this literature to know for sure if there is other published data showing it is more prevalent, but reviews of the literature give figures more in the 5% range.
    Finally, if you’re still not convinced and think that this concession means that the government is really admitting that vaccines cause autism, ask yourself this simple question: If this case conceded by the government is such a slam-dunk piece of evidence that mercury in vaccines or vaccines themselves cause autism, why on earth did the plaintiff’s allow it to be dropped from the Autism Omnibus and settled? If, as Kirby implies and Handley and Heckenlively outright state, this case is slam-dunk, irrefutable evidence that vaccines cause autism so strong that the government couldn’t fight it, then keeping it in the Autism Omnibus as a test case would have allowed it to serve as a precedent that would provide a significant proportion, if not all, of the plaintiffs of the nearly 5,000 cases to follow a much better chance of obtaining compensatio? If this case is so damning, as Kirby et al imply that it is, would dropping it from the Autism Omnibus make any sense?

    Liz Ditz

    September 13, 2010 at 3:02 pm

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