Atlanta - The parents of the 9-year-old girl who won a government settlement described how their hearts were broken as they watched their bright, red-haired daughter deteriorate into an irritable, odd-behaving toddler after she got several childhood shots.
"Suddenly my daughter was no longer there," said Terry Poling, the girl's mother, in a news conference Thursday. She and her husband Jon said their daughter, Hannah, has been diagnosed with autism.
The government has agreed to pay the Polings from a federal fund that compensates people injured by vaccines. U.S. officials reject the idea that the vaccines cause autism, but they say that in this case the shots worsened an underlying disorder that led to autism-like symptoms.
The Polings said five simultaneous vaccinations in July 2000 led to Hannah's autistic behavior. She was about 18 months at the time.
U.S. health officials have consistently maintained that vaccines are safe, and a lawyer representing them said this week that there was no change in that position.
"Nothing in any of this is going to change any of our recommendations" about the importance of vaccines for children, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, who heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Our message to parents is that immunization is life-saving."
In Polings' first appearance since the case became public this week, the Athens, Ga., couple acknowledged their legal case never got to the point where evidence was introduced or argued.
They called on the government to remove thimerosal - a mercury-based vaccine preservative - from all flu shots. Thimerosal has already been removed from other vaccinations given to children.
"Why take a chance?" asked Jon Poling, a 37-year-old neurologist.
The Polings, accompanied by Hannah, said their daughter was a bright child who could whistle on command. But almost immediately after the vaccinations nearly eight years ago, she because feverish and irritable. Then, her behavior gradually changed so she would stare at fans and lights and run in circles.
"It wasn't like a switch being turned off. It was more like a dimmer switch being turned down," Jon Poling said.
Government health officials conceded that the vaccines worsened an underlying condition and that she should be paid from the federal vaccine-injury fund.
Autism advocates called Hannah's case a "landmark decision," although the Polings' own attorney disputes that.
"This was not a court decision," said Clifford Shoemaker, who is based in Vienna, Va. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conceded the case before the court was asked to make a determination, he added.
Government officials wouldn't discuss why they conceded this particular case, but said people with pre-existing injuries can obtain compensation under the program if they establish that their underlying condition was "significantly aggravated" by a vaccine.
Medical and legal experts say the narrow wording and circumstances probably make the case an exception - not a precedent for thousands of other pending claims.
Hannah has a disorder involving her mitochondria, the energy factories of cells. The disorder - which can be present at birth from an inherited gene or acquired later in life - impairs cells' ability to use nutrients. It often causes problems in brain functioning and can lead to delays in walking and talking.
The Polings were exploring two theories about what happened to Hannah. One is that she was born with the mitochondria disorder and the vaccines caused a stress to the body that worsened the condition. The other was that the ingredient thimerosal caused the mitochondrial dysfunction, Jon Poling said. Since 2002, the preservative thimerosal has been removed from shots recommended for young children, except for some flu shots.
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