A Historic Vaccine-Injury Case
About a decade ago, the family of 9-year-old Hannah Poling pursued a claim through the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). Hannah had demonstrated features of Autism Spectrum Disorder after a series of vaccines. They won. As one headline put it, "Family to Receive $1.5M+ in First-Ever Vaccine-Autism Court Award."* It looked like the U.S. Government had just acknowledged that vaccines could cause Autism.
What Really Happened
Perhaps you won't be surprised to learn that isn't exactly what happened. Things were, as they often are, more complicated. The vaccines had, in the language of the vaccine court, "significantly aggravated an underlying mitochondrial disorder, which predisposed her to deficits in cellular energy metabolism, and manifested as a regressive encephalopathy with features of Autism Spectrum Disorder." That's a lot of medical jargon, but - essentially - the court wasn't granting compensation for Autism. They were granting it for a condition called encephalopathy. Some (even some in the press) were confused by the language of the decision.
VICP will not compensate for Autism
For the purposes of the law, the issue of Autism and vaccines is a settled one. The VICP will not compensate for Autism. Just prior to the case mentioned above, the VICP Special Masters, quite a few vaccine-injury plaintiff's attorneys, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, worked on a series of cases which resulted in consistent decisions that declared the U.S. Government's findings that there was no connection between vaccines (or their ingredients) and Autism. The existing research on the topic, including about two dozen studies since 1999, leads most scientists to agree with the U.S. Government findings. Unless there is a radical shift in the research outcomes, that is likely how it will be for the foreseeable future.
However, as you can see from the Poling decision at the beginning of this article, the mention of Autism by the court was potentially confusing. So, a case that was decided as a vaccine-connected encephalopathy became - in the press and popular consciousness - a case about Autism triggered by vaccines. Since encephalopathy or encephalitis can potentially be connected to vaccines, a basic introduction to these conditions would be helpful.
The first thing to know is that the VICP exists as a "no fault" administrative procedure to compensate people who have experienced injuries from vaccines. Encephalopathy and encephalitis are what are called "table injuries." Generally, if a person receives a specified vaccine and, within a certain period of time, develops a specific condition found in the list (or "table") of those conditions, the VICP will most likely compensate them for the resulting harm.
The conditions on that list are called "table injuries." Each table injury is associated with specific vaccines, and these associations are identified in that table. Based on the results of existing research, we are reasonably sure that there is an association between that vaccine and that injury. Encephalopathy and encephalitis are associated with pertussis-related vaccines (such as DTaP), as well as with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines (such as MMR).
What is Encephalopathy?
Encephalopathy is defined in slightly different terms depending on the medical dictionary you are using: It could be defined as any degenerative disease of the brain, any disease of the brain, or any disorder of the brain. It can be a diagnosed syndrome, or it can be a term used to describe a set of symptoms. Furthermore, the law governing the VICP has its own specific criteria which allow encephalopathy and encephalitis to be compensable. The criteria for encephalopathy differ slightly depending on whether the encephalopathy is acute or chronic, whether the sufferer has had a seizure or not, and whether the sufferer is under 18 months old or older. In short, it's complicated. Therefore, if you or a loved one have had a DTP, DTaP or MMR vaccine and a short time afterwards experienced a "significant change in consciousness," that a medical professional has described as encephalopathy, you should contact an attorney who specializes in vaccine injuries.
Is Encephalitis Different from Encephalopathy?
Encephalitis is connected to the same vaccines as encephalopathy, but the condition is much simpler to define. Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain. There are a list of symptoms which doctors look for, and it is possible to perform tests, including MRIs, which might confirm that those symptoms are caused by encephalitis. However, as with encephalopathy, if you or a loved one have received a DTP, DTaP, or MMR vaccine and soon after are diagnosed with encephalitis, you should contact an attorney who specializes in vaccine injuries.
Also, timing is essential in two ways. First, the VICP will only find encephalopathy and encephalitis related to a vaccine if the symptoms arise within a specified amount of time after receiving the vaccine. Second, there is a limited amount of time to file a claim after symptoms arise. So, it is not only important to contact an attorney who specializes in vaccine injuries, but it is important to contact an attorney as soon as possible. It can be devastating for people with a strong claim who contact an attorney only to find out they are too late.
What is Autism?
Regarding Autism, I should acknowledge that this is a sensitive issue for many reasons. I have friends who are diagnosed with conditions on the Autism spectrum or who self-identify as autistic, I volunteer with an organization that defends the rights of people with disabilities including individuals with Autism, and - long before I became an attorney - I worked with and volunteered for organizations who served adults and children with developmental disabilities, some of whom were diagnosed as autistic. I am not a psychiatrist, a researcher, or a member of the autistic community, but I know enough to take care when discussing the issues involved.
How Autism is defined and how individuals with Autism identify themselves, for example, are issues needing care. For that reason, I will not attempt to "define" Autism, but will simply recite descriptions of Autism from three sources: the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) describes Autism as a neurological variation that is classified as a developmental disability. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) describes Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts. The CDC describes ASD as a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. A good resource for learning more about Autism is ASAN, the organization mentioned above. You can find out about them here: http://autisticadvocacy.org
These superficial definitions hint at how it might be difficult for a lay person to separate these conditions. What is important to learn from this post, however, is that a diagnosis of encephalopathy or encephalitis is potentially compensable as a vaccine-injury and, if you or a loved one have been diagnosed with either and suspect it may be related to a vaccine, you should contact an attorney as soon as possible.