CDC’s immunization safety director says it’s a “possibility” that vaccines rarely trigger autism but “it’s hard to predict who those children might be.” (They’re not even trying.)
[This article was first published on Sept. 2, 2014]
A CDC senior epidemiologist stepped forward last week to say that he and his CDC colleagues omitted data that linked MMR vaccine to autism in a 2004 study. The scientist, William Thompson, said “I regret that my coauthors and I omitted statistically significant information.”
Dr. Frank DeStefano, CDC Director of Immunization Safety
A coauthor of the questioned study is Dr. Frank DeStefano, Director of the CDC Immunization Safety Office. In a telephone interview last week, DeStefano defended the study and reiterated the commonly accepted position that there’s no “causal” link between vaccines and autism.
But he acknowledged the prospect that vaccines might rarely trigger autism.
“I guess, that, that is a possibility,” said DeStefano. “It’s hard to predict who those children might be, but certainly, individual cases can be studied to look at those possibilities.”
It is a significant admission from a leading health official at an agency that has worked for nearly 15 years to dispel the public of any notion of a tie between vaccines and autism. Vaccines are among the most heralded medical inventions of our time. Billions of people have been vaccinated worldwide, countless lives have been saved and debilitating injuries prevented. The possibility that vaccines may also partly be responsible for autism, in individual cases, is not something public health officials are typically eager to address.
One such individual case is that of Hannah Poling.
Hannah Poling was considered normal, happy and precocious until 19 months of age when she was vaccinated against nine diseases in one doctor’s visit: measles, mumps, rubella, polio, varicella, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, and Haemophilus influenzae. Afterward, she developed high fevers, had screaming fits, stopped eating, didn’t respond when spoken to and began showing signs of autism.
As vaccination has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, children have gone from being inoculated against four diseases in 1953 to today’s recommended schedule of shots for 16 diseases requiring 49 doses by age 6. The government and pharmaceutical industry have said evidence shows babies’ systems can easily handle the immune boost.
In federal “vaccine court,” the U.S. government defends injury claims on behalf of vaccine makers
In 2002, Hannah’s parents—her father a neurologist, her mother a nurse and attorney—filed a claim in a specially-created federal vaccine court in which the U.S. Department of Justice defends vaccine interests. Hannah was to serve as a test case to help decide the outcome of thousands of vaccine-autism claims.
The case was strong. In 2007, contemplating Hannah would win her claim, sources say the vaccine court analyzed what the broader financial impact might be. It found that a flood of similar vaccine-autism claims would quickly deplete the government’s vaccine injury compensation fund, which is supported by a small fee patients pay on each dose of vaccine.
But instead of allowing Hannah’s case to publicly serve as a precedent for other possible victims, the government took another course: it quietly settled the case and sealed the results. Other families with autistic children were never to know. Hannah’s family petitioned the court to be allowed to reveal the findings but the government fought to keep the case sealed—and prevailed.
Still, news of Hannah’s case leaked out in 2008—along with the medical explanation for her vaccine-related “autistic encephalopathy [brain damage].”
Vaccines prevent many diseases that once routinely killed or harmed. But can vaccines trigger autism in a small subset of vulnerable children? Image from: Public Health Image Library
In a court-submitted opinion, neurologist Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, Director of Medical Research at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, stated that he had “personally witnessed [Hannah’s] developmental regression” following “vaccine-induced fever and immune stimulation.”
Zimmerman concluded that Hannah was vulnerable to vaccine injury because she had a metabolic disorder called mitochondrial dysfunction. While vaccines are safe for most children, in Hannah, they triggered a brain injury, according to Zimmerman.
Whether vaccines “caused” or “triggered” Hannah’s autism, the result was the same: but for her vaccinations, Zimmerman said, “Hannah may have led a normal full productive life.” Instead, she suffers “significant lifelong disability.”
A second underlying condition that was aggravated by vaccines, resulting in mental retardation and autism, is tuberous sclerosis or “TS,” according to a 1986 vaccine court case. According to the National Institutes of Health, TS affects 1 in every 6,000 newborns.
Not all children who developed autism as a result of vaccine injuries, as determined by vaccine court, had identifiable pre-existing conditions. But I asked the CDC’s DeStefano whether it was worth trying to figure out what underlying conditions put kids at risk so they can be tested in advance and, if vulnerable, spared.
“That’s very difficult to do,” DeStefano told me. He said the CDC’s priorities are gaining a better understanding of the pathogenesis, genetics and biology of autism. “And then, I think… it’d be more feasible to try to establish if vaccines in an individual case, say a person with a certain set of genes…if we ever get to that point, then that kind of research might be fruitful.”
Not worthy of study?
But it turns out the CDC has ruled out that sort of research. A CDC spokesman told me that the agency is not “currently investigating the relation between vaccines and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Further, CDC does not have any planned research addressing vaccines and autism.”
As of May, 2010 the government had compensated 1,296 vaccine brain damage (encephalopathy/encephalitis and seizure cases) but was not tracking how many of the brain-injured children specifically ended up with autism.
“CDC believes that this topic has been thoroughly studied and no causal links have been found,” said the spokesman in an email.
“Current CDC ASD related research focuses on determining how many people have ASD and understanding risk factors and causes for ASD,” said the CDC.
Seven years after Hannah’s case settled, twenty-eight years after the TS case, it’s impossible to know how many similar children, if any, are out there. And the government isn’t trying to find out.
Above: click to hear Part 1 of Sharyl Attkisson telephone interview with CDC Director of Immunization Safety Dr. Frank DeStefano about the possibility of vaccines triggering autism, Aug. 26, 2014
Attkisson: And is, is the pos—the current position that any potential link between vaccines and autism, secondary, any kind at all, has been entirely ruled out 100%?
DeStefano: I re, you know, I re—uh, I think every hypothesis that’s been looked at has been, uh, ruled out.
Attkisson: But, I mean, are you, are you, can I say the CDC’s position is that if anybody thinks there’s anything anymore, it’s a myth? It’s all been disproven?
DeStefano: Wouldn’t say it’s a myth, I’d say, you know, all the evidence, thus far, points to that there’s not a causal association between vaccines and autism.
Attkisson: What about secondary?
DeStefano: Sec—I don’t understand what do you mean “secondary”?
Attkisson: What about not “causal,” but “as a result of” vaccines, as in the Poling case? The medical expert found, you know, as a result of the damages she had from the vaccines, she ended up with autism. And the distinction was made in the medical expert, ‘well, that’s not ‘causal’, it’s sort of a ‘but for’ but it’s not a ‘causal.’
DeStefano: Yeah, I mean, I mean in that case, you know, she had a, I mean, you know, she had an underlying uh biological illness that uh either vaccination, or it could’ve been an infection that that would trigger some physiological stress in her, uh, seems to have, you know, could’ve, could’ve caused uh, um, manifestations that, characteristics of autism which, you, you know, appears to be what happened in her case.
Attkisson: But I mean doesn’t that, is—isn’t that a “link”? It’s not a “causal” link, but isn’t that a potential link between vaccination and autism if certain children with a “underyling biological illness” can have a “trigger” through vaccination?
DeStefano: [Unintell] as you call it, a secondary link if you wanna call it that way, w– in certain children, I mean ri—I mean, I, maybe that, but, you know, then I guess, that, that is a possibility.
Above: click to hear Part 2 of interview with CDC’s Dr. DeStefano
Attkisson: Do you think that’s an important area of study so we could figure out which kids might have that predisposition?
DeStefano: uh, [phone noise] Yeah, I mean, I think um…You know, I think it’s something that, uh, well I mean, you know, in terms of uh… I mean, It’s hard, it’s hard to say, you know, I mean it’s like, um…I mean how how important that is. I mean, it’s a theoretical possibility, I guess the, the Poling case maybe suggested it could happen. Uh, but [unintell] cause it’s hard to predict who those children might be, but certainly, um individual cases, uh, can be studied to try to, uh, to look at those, uh, those possibilities.
Attkisson: Well I would just think—and then, then I’ll let you go in a few minutes unless you have more time—but as a parent, if my kid had whatever Poling had and we could figure that out, that would be one kid you would cull out [from vaccination] versus not worry about other kids if they don’t have that predisposition. But maybe you could identify the ones that would be vulnerable. But I haven’t seen that there’s any—is there an area of study trying to do such a thing within CDC or funded by CDC? Or NIH?
DeStefano: Well, in terms of like, you know, the area at CDC that’s that’s studying autism and possible causal relationships of autism, uh, you know, whatever they may be, uh, is in the Center the National Center for Birth Defects and Developmental Disability, and they, they do monitoring for autism prevalence and they do have, uh, studies trying to go on, you know, going on to, to look at, uh, a number of factors that could be, uh, related to, uh, increasing the risk of autism or causing autism.
Above: click to hear Part 3 of interview with CDC’s Dr. DeStefano
Attkisson: I mean I think to sum up, you’re you’re saying what I, what I think is also the case just based on my own research: that while the government has ruled out any known “causal” link between autism and vaccines, it hasn’t ruled out the possibility, and in fact there seems to be at least one case where it’s acknowledged what I called a “secondary” link, meaning not “causal” but uh “triggered.” And the result for the parent, you know, may–to them it may be one and the same. And they may be trying to figure out which kids, you know, might have that predisposition.
DeStefano: Yeah, but you know, that’s very difficult to do. That’s almost circular reasoning, say, you know, kind of, you can’t, I mean, you know, the, the useful thing for parents who are clinically would be able to identify the kids who are gonna have, I mean, this way we’re identifying one certain child after the fact and say, you know, maybe in that one child, it was this or that that happened to him. But uh, it’s very difficult to make a causal link in in just one case.
Attkisson: Well, but isn’t that what you guys are supposed to do, figure it out? That’s a, as you know, autism is such a huge problem, even if a teeny percentage is perhaps triggered by vaccination, I would think that’d be very, very important to, to learn and try to figure out. You guys are the best at it, I’m sure somebody there can do it over time.
DeStefano: Yeah…[unintell] I think…[unintell] have a better understanding of uh of the pathogenesis of autism and the genetics and the biology and then, I think, I mean, and then, and then, with these individual cases, it’d be, you know, more feasible to try to establish if, uh, if, if vaccines in an individual case, say a person with a certain, certain set of genes or something, you know, if we ever get to that point, then that kind of research, uh, might be fruitful, you know.