The parents of an autistic girl involved in an important vaccine injury case have broken their silence. The Mom and Dad of nine-year-old girl Hannah Poling, who recently won a government settlement, described how they watched their bright, red-haired daughter deteriorate into an irritable, odd-behaving toddler after receiving several childhood shots. “Suddenly my daughter was no longer there,” said Terry Poling, the girl’s mother, in a news conference Thursday. She and her husband Jon—a neurologist—said Hannah has been diagnosed with autism.
The government agreed to pay the Polings out of a federal fund that compensates those injured by vaccines. While US officials do not agree that the vaccines cause autism, they do acknowledge that—in this case—the immunizations did worsen an underlying disorder that led to the autism-like symptoms that Hannah exhibits. The Polings said five simultaneous vaccinations administered in July 2000 led to Hannah’s autistic behavior. Hannah was about 18 months at the time.
US health officials maintain that vaccines are safe and a lawyer representing the group said, “Nothing in any of this is going to change any of our recommendations” about the importance of vaccines for children, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, who heads the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Our message to parents is that immunization is life-saving.”
The family called on the government to remove thimerosal—a mercury-based vaccine preservative believed by many to be the cause of autism in many children— from all flu shots. Thimerosal has already been removed from other vaccinations given to children. “Why take a chance?” asked Jon Poling. The Polings said prior to receiving the injections, their daughter was a bright child and said that almost immediately after the vaccinations—which were given nearly eight years ago—Hannah because feverish and irritable. Hannah’s behavior gradually changed to that point that she would stare at fans and lights and run in circles. “It wasn’t like a switch being turned off. It was more like a dimmer switch being turned down,” Jon Poling said. Government health officials conceded the vaccines worsened an underlying condition and she should be paid from the federal vaccine-injury fund. Autism advocates called the case a “landmark decision,” although the Polings’ own attorney disputes that saying the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conceded the case before the court was asked to make a determination.
Government officials won’t say why they conceded this case, but did say those with pre-existing injuries can obtain compensation under the program if they establish that their underlying condition was “significantly aggravated” by a vaccine. Medical and legal experts say the case an exception and not a precedent for thousands of other pending claims.
Hannah has a disorder involving her mitochondria—the energy makers of cells—which can be present at birth from an inherited gene or acquired later in life and impairs cells’ ability to use nutrients, often affecting brain functioning that can lead to delays in walking and talking. According to Hannah’s father, either she was born with the disorder and the vaccines caused a stress that worsened the condition or thimerosal caused the mitochondrial dysfunction. Since 2002, the preservative thimerosal has been removed from shots recommended for young children, except for some flu shots.