March 6, 2008 -- Neurologist Jon Poling, MD, PhD, is not surprised that the federal government decided to grant compensation from a federal vaccine injury fund because his daughter Hannah, now 9, had developed autism-like symptoms after receiving childhood vaccines.
An experience like that might understandably turn any parent -- even a doctor -- against childhood vaccines at all costs. Surprisingly, it has not, Poling tells WebMD.
"I don't think the case should scare people," says Poling, 37, who emphasizes that vaccines, like all of medicine, carry risks and benefits.
In deciding the case, which has sparked anew the vaccine-autism debate, the federal government has not said that childhood vaccines cause autism. Rather, federal officials conclude the vaccines, given to Hannah in 2000, aggravated a pre-existing condition that then manifested as autism-like symptoms.
The pre-existing condition was a disorder of the mitochondria, the "power sources" of the cell, according to Poling.
Court vs. Science
Proving the link legally is quite different than proving it scientifically, Poling says. "When you are talking about the courtroom vs. science, the burden of proof is different," Poling tells WebMD.
"We showed there was a plausible mechanism, we showed that an injury occurred shortly after her vaccination. Her growth curve went flat for months."
To prove something scientifically, rather than legally, he points out, only a 5% possibility (or one in 20 chance) that something happens by chance is allowable.
Decision Made, Questions Remain
In the wake of the decision, Poling, like other experts, says many questions remain about autism, vaccines, and mitochondrial disorders. "This mitochondrial issue, is it rare? Is it inherited?" he asks.
Poling says that Hannah's doctor in Atlanta, John Shoffner, MD, who was also a co-author on a scientific paper Poling wrote about the disorder and its link with autism, "has a number of cases of children who have mitochondrial disorder and autism. But he is not sure that the one causes the other or vice versa."
Even so, Poling says, "I don't think Hannah's case is as unique as many experts believe."