Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Vaccinations coming under fire for link to autism

LYNN - A recent admission by government health officials that childhood vaccines worsened a rare, underlying disorder that ultimately led to autism-like symptoms in a Georgia girl has sparked a new debate among parents and physicians alike as to whether the important vaccinations are responsible for a drastic rise in autism diagnosis over the past two decades.

The parents of nine-year-old Hannah Poling believe it was the five simultaneous vaccines that she received as a toddler eight years ago that led to her autism, and were ultimately awarded a settlement from the federal vaccine-injury fund earlier this month.

According to U.S. Department of Health documents obtained by the Associated Press, the five vaccines Poling received aggravated a genetic mitochondrial condition, predisposing her to metabolic problems that manifested in worsening her brain function.

While the landmark ruling has created hope and optimism among many parents with autistic children - nearly 5,000 families are in the process of seeking similar compensation on the grounds that vaccines may have caused autism in their own children - many medical experts are weary of blaming vaccines for the complicated condition, calling Poling's case a rare exception.

"This is a significant debate, but I tend to agree with the Academy of Pediatrics' perspective. Immunizations are one of the top 10 changes in health care that have helped the human race immensely," said Dr. Edward Bailey, a pediatrician at North Shore Medical Center in Salem. "We believe strongly in vaccines. We are only a plane ride away from some of these serious diseases. In my 30 years of practice, every few years we have had people rising up to say that these vaccines are dangerous for one reason or another, but if we stop using them it will have a very negative effect on everyone."

The main focus of these claims is a mercury-based preservative, thermerosal, which was once found in most common vaccines. While it has since been removed from nearly all of the shots, many families believe this has triggered autistic effects in their children.

Lynn resident Kristin Chasse, whose 13-year-old son Daniel was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism, at the age of four, says she has explored the possibility of vaccinations playing a role in her son's problems because his behavior began to change shortly after receiving the shots.

"I definitely think there has to be a link, but no one really knows for sure," she said. "We did see a change somewhat after the vaccinations, but it is hard to say because it was our first child. We didn't really know what we were looking for."

Chasse says Daniel was very vocal, and would babble and make sounds prior to his vaccinations, but afterward she began to notice he had stopped talking and didn't reach out to touch and grab things like he had before.

"After we realized that, we called early intervention," she said. "I definitely think there has to be a link. There are too many kids that this happens to, but I really don't think they know. Even if they did know, stopping the vaccines would create a more widespread problem than autism."

Bailey said, like all medicines, vaccines do occasionally have negative side effects in some individuals, but based on how little doctors know about autism to begin with, blaming these shots as a primary cause for the disease is something he strongly disagrees with.

"The association that makes this difficult is that these vaccines are given in the first two years of life, and when do the first signs of autism take effect? In the first two years of life," Bailey said. "So if you are getting a vaccine every two to four months, it might appear when the signs of autism first surface, that is the effect. But keeping in mind that no one knows the cause of autism, to pick one life-saving intervention and say that it is a conspiracy, I have to disagree with that."

Bailey and other physicians say there is no good, solid evidence to link autism to vaccines, or the mitochondrial disorder that Poling suffers from.

"It is a very difficult problem for any parent who walks into the pediatrician's office and finds out that it is vaccination day," said Bailey. "The best we can say is children are much better off with vaccines than they are without them, because if the vaccination rate drops below 80 percent, the whole population is at risk."

Autism is a developmental disorder that causes abnormalities in social interaction and communication, as well as severely restricted interests and highly repetitive behavior.

Asperger Syndrome is the most common form, but differs from other forms of autism in that delay in cognitive development and language development are less common.

"Autistic children are defined in a number of different ways," said Bailey. "Most are bright individuals who just process things in a different way. They have an inability to relate and communicate with people in the normal, make eye contact sort of ways."

Many parents point to an increase in diagnosis in the disorder over the last two decades, as a sign that vaccines may be causing an increase in the problem.

On the other hand, Bailey says, much of that spike in diagnosis may come from re-classification of other diseases such as some forms of retardation as autism because the medical industry has more knowledge and resources.

The medical field didn't even recognize the diagnostic term of autism until the 1940's, and the disease did not become common until the 1980's, suggesting the increase may come from better understanding of the symptoms.

For families like the Chasses, the term of diagnosis doesn't matter as much as finding a cause, and a cure for the disease.

"Regardless of what they classify it as, it is a problem," she said. "It has caused a lot of pain and difficulty for our family over the last 13 years. Daniel is doing very well now, but we are one of the lucky ones to be honest."

A decision is expected in the spring on the first test case for a larger group of autism-vaccine claims, which are being held in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

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