March 1, 2008


In Wake of Unusual Case, Immunization Experts Seek to Reassure Public about Vaccine Safety


Following an unusual vaccine injury case in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, immunization experts are seeking to address the public’s concerns about vaccine safety.

The case involved a previously healthy 19-month-old child who received five shots in a single day because she was behind on the immunization schedule. She subsequently developed symptoms of autism. A muscle biopsy and genetic testing revealed that she had a preexisting mitochondrial dysfunction disorder. The court agreed to pay the family from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which compensates people who likely have been injured by vaccines.

Although some media reports have been confusing, the decision to provide compensation to the family was not made on the basis of thimerosal exposure in vaccines, said Neal A. Halsey, MD, of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Halsey chairs IDSA’s Immunization Work Group. “Neither the Department of Justice nor the U.S. Public Health Service has decided that vaccines cause autism, as alleged in statements made by some individuals to the press,” he said.

In fact, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stressed that the child represents one special case and does not change the immunization recommendations for children.

The child’s case has been described in an article published in the medical literature. (See abstract at Developmental Regression and Mitochondrial Dysfunction in a Child with Autism, J Child Neurol 2006; 21; 170.) 

“This child unfortunately has an underlying disorder of mitochondrial dysfunction that affects the body’s ability to deal with stress and respond to infections or other immunological stimuli,” said Dr. Halsey. “Children with mitochondrial dysfunction often develop neurological problems, including developmental regression, as was reported in this child. Infections and other stresses can trigger neurologic complications in these children. The vaccines she received protect against several diseases which could have caused her similar problems.”

According to Dr. Halsey, the decision to provide compensation appears to be based on the underlying condition and the presumption that the administration of vaccines may have resulted in oxidative stress similar to what can occur with infections. The vaccine court can make decisions based on less strong evidence than would be accepted in other forums.

Various experts have pointed out that there is no established link between vaccines, mitochondrial disorders, or autism. It is not known whether the underlying disease would have progressed in the same way if the child had not been vaccinated.

More information about the case is expected to be released in May.

For more information, see:

Information on the Vaccine Injury Case

Information about the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program

Information on Thimerosal

Information on Vaccines, Autism, Mitochondrial Disease


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