|Government Concedes Vaccine-Autism Case in Federal Court - Now What?
The Huffington Post | February 25, 2008
After years of insisting there is no evidence to link vaccines with the onset of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the US government has quietly conceded a vaccine-autism case in the Court of Federal Claims.
The unprecedented concession was filed on November 9, and sealed to protect the plaintiff's identify. It was obtained through individuals unrelated to the case.
The claim, one of 4,900 autism cases currently pending in Federal "Vaccine Court," was conceded by US Assistant Attorney General Peter Keisler and other Justice Department officials, on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services, the "defendant" in all Vaccine Court cases.
The child's claim against the government -- that mercury-containing vaccines were the cause of her autism -- was supposed to be one of three "test cases" for the thimerosal-autism theory currently under consideration by a three-member panel of Special Masters, the presiding justices in Federal Claims Court.
Keisler wrote that medical personnel at the HHS Division of Vaccine Injury Compensation (DVIC) had reviewed the case and "concluded that compensation is appropriate."
The doctors conceded that the child was healthy and developing normally until her 18-month well-baby visit, when she received vaccinations against nine different diseases all at once (two contained thimerosal).
Days later, the girl began spiraling downward into a cascade of illnesses and setbacks that, within months, presented as symptoms of autism, including: No response to verbal direction; loss of language skills; no eye contact; loss of "relatedness;" insomnia; incessant screaming; arching; and "watching the florescent lights repeatedly during examination."
Seven months after vaccination, the patient was diagnosed by Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a leading neurologist at the Kennedy Krieger Children's Hospital Neurology Clinic, with "regressive encephalopathy (brain disease) with features consistent with autistic spectrum disorder, following normal development." The girl also met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) official criteria for autism.
In its written concession, the government said the child had a pre-existing mitochondrial disorder that was "aggravated" by her shots, and which ultimately resulted in an ASD diagnosis.
"The vaccinations received on July 19, 2000, significantly aggravated an underlying mitochondrial disorder," the concession says, "which predisposed her to deficits in cellular energy metabolism, and manifested as a regressive encephalopathy with features of ASD."
This statement is good news for the girl and her family, who will now be compensated for the lifetime of care she will require. But its implications for the larger vaccine-autism debate, and for public health policy in general, are not as certain.
In fact, the government's concession seems to raise more questions than it answers.
1) Is there a connection between vaccines, mitochondrial disorders and a diagnosis of autism, at least in some cases?
Mitochondria, you may recall from biology class, are the little powerhouses within cells that convert food into electrical energy, partly through a complex process called "oxidative phosphorylation." If this process is impaired, mitochondrial disorder will ensue.
The child in this case had several markers for Mt disease, which was confirmed by muscle biopsy. Mt disease is often marked by lethargy, poor muscle tone, poor food digestion and bowel problems, something found in many children diagnosed with autism.
But mitochondrial disorders are rare in the general population, affecting some 2-per-10,000 people (or just 0.2%). So with 4,900 cases filed in Vaccine Court, this case should be the one and only, extremely rare instance of Mt disease in all the autism proceedings.
But it is not.
Mitochondrial disorders are now thought to be the most common disease associated with ASD. Some journal articles and other analyses have estimated that 10% to 20% of all autism cases may involve mitochondrial disorders, which would make them one thousand times more common among people with ASD than the general population.
Another article, published in the Journal of Child Neurology and co-authored by Dr. Zimmerman, showed that 38% of Kennedy Krieger Institute autism patients studied had one marker for impaired oxidative phosphorylation, and 47% had a second marker.
The authors -- who reported on a case-study of the same autism claim conceded in Vaccine Court -- noted that "children who have (mitochondrial-related) dysfunctional cellular energy metabolism might be more prone to undergo autistic regression between 18 and 30 months of age if they also have infections or immunizations at the same time."
An interesting aspect of Mt disease in autism is that, with ASD, the mitochondrial disease seems to be milder than in "classic" cases of Mt disorder. In fact, classic Mt disease is almost always inherited, either passed down by the mother through mitochondrial DNA, or by both parents through nuclear DNA.
In autism-related Mt disease, however, the disorder is not typically found in other family members, and instead appears to be largely of the sporadic variety, which may now account for 75% of all mitochondrial disorders.
Meanwhile, an informal survey of seven families of children with cases currently pending in Vaccine Court revealed that all seven showed markers for mitochondrial dysfunction, dating back to their earliest medical tests. The facts in all seven claims mirror the case just conceded by the government: Normal development followed by vaccination, immediate illness, and rapid decline culminating in an autism diagnosis.
2) With 4,900 cases pending, and more coming, will the government concede those with underlying Mt disease -- and if it not, will the Court award compensation?
The Court will soon begin processing the 4900 cases pending before it. What if 10% to 20% of them can demonstrate the same Mt disease and same set of facts as those in the conceded case? Would the government be obliged to concede 500, or even 1,000 cases? What impact would that have on public opinion? And is there enough money currently in the vaccine injury fund to cover so many settlements?
When asked for a comment last week about the court settlement, a spokesman for HHS furnished the following written statement:
"DVIC has reviewed the scientific information concerning the allegation that vaccines cause autism and has found no credible evidence to support the claim. Accordingly, in every case under the Vaccine Act, DVIC has maintained the position that vaccines do not cause autism, and has never concluded in any case that autism was caused by vaccination."3) If the government is claiming that vaccines did not "cause" autism, but instead aggravated a condition to "manifest" as autism, isn't that a very fine distinction?
For most affected families, such linguistic gymnastics is not so important. And even if a vaccine injury "manifested" as autism in only one case, isn't that still a significant development worthy of informing the public?
On the other hand, perhaps what the government is claiming is that vaccination resulted in the symptoms of autism, but not in an actual, factually correct diagnosis of autism itself.
4) If the government is claiming that this child does NOT have autism, then how many other children might also have something else that merely "mimics" autism?
Is it possible that 10%-20% of the cases that we now label as "autism," are not autism at all, but rather some previously undefined "look-alike" syndrome that merely presents as "features" of autism?
This question gets to the heart of what autism actually is. The disorder is defined solely as a collection of features, nothing more. If you have the features (and the diagnosis), you have the disorder. The underlying biology is the great unknown.
But let's say the government does determine that these kids don't have actual "autism" (something I speculated on HuffPost a year ago). Then shouldn't the Feds go back and test all people with ASD for impaired oxidative phosphorylation, perhaps reclassifying many of them?