The family of 9-year-old Hannah Poling of Georgia announced Thursday that they’d won a settlement from a federal fund that compensates people injured by vaccines. The news has thrilled local activists who have been fighting for a government admission that there are potential problems with vaccines.
“It’s going to set a precedent for how the other 7,000 claims in ‘vaccine court’ are settled,” says Amy Carson, president and co-founder of Moms Against Mercury. “My son, Kit, has had a claim in for eight years. Finally, we have an admission from the government that there might be a problem with our vaccines.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conceded the case before it could reach court, and the settlement amount has not been announced. The special “vaccine court,” overseen by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, rules on requests for payments from the vaccine-injury fund.
The Polings say their daughter, Hannah, went from being a bright, responsive child to exhibiting odd behaviors after a series of vaccination shots. Hannah has been diagnosed with autism. Government officials say the vaccines did not cause Hannah’s disorder, but exacerbated an underlying disorder that led to the autistic symptoms.
Many in the medical community are concerned that a decrease in immunizations will cause a corresponding rise in preventable childhood illnesses. Buncombe County has seen a rise in cases of pertussis (also known as whooping cough) over the past several years.
“To continue to protect America’s children and adults, we must obtain maximum immunization coverage in all populations, conduct reliable scientific research, and ensure vaccine safety,” says local infectious-disease specialist Dr. James Whitehouse. “A single case of disease will remain a single case if everyone around the infected person is vaccinated. If we are not vaccinated, a single case can turn into an epidemic.”
Like Hannah, Carson’s son’s behavior and development changed significantly after he received a series of vaccinations as a toddler. When 11-year-old Kit was 3, he was diagnosed with toxic mercury levels. According to studies, symptoms of mercury poisoning can mimic the symptoms of autism.
Thimerosol, which contains mercury, was used as a preservative in childhood vaccines until 2001. It was discontinued because of its possible association with autism-like disorders, although it’s still used in some flu vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended that all children aged 6 months to 18 receive an annual flu vaccine.
“There is no convincing scientific evidence of harm caused by the low doses of thimerosal in vaccines. Large and reliable studies have discredited any theories suggesting vaccination might be associated with autism or other developmental disorders,” Whitehouse says.
Some parents disagree, however.
“If the doctor had told me the day Kit was born that he’d be injecting my 5-pound baby with a significant neurotoxin, I would have done things very differently,” Carson said.
Carson believes that a genetic difference accounts for why some children react to the vaccinations while other children suffer no adverse effects.
“There’s a huge population of people who don’t excrete metals well. You see it in Alzheimer and heart-disease patients as well. When my son had a hair test, there was no mercury there. But his blood tests showed toxic levels of the metal. So, unlike other kids, he doesn’t excrete mercury through his hair and skin,” Carson says.
Carson says the Poling case indicates to her that the government needs to listen to parents and consider testing for people who might have this predisposition.
“Vaccines as a defense from disease aren’t bad in themselves, they just can be made safer. Any parent, if given the choice of safer vaccines, is going to take that option,” Carson says.
— Anne Fitten Glenn is an Asheville-based writer and photographer. The Associated Press contributed to this story. Read more about childhood vaccinations in Mountain Xpress’ Kids’ Guide, on the racks on March 26.