Officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scrambled Thursday to reassure the public that childhood vaccines were safe after news spread that an agency had acknowledged a link between a child’s autism and the shots she received as a toddler.
“Our message to parents is that immunization is life- saving,” Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, the CDC’s director, said at a hastily convened conference call with reporters. “There’s nothing changed. . . . This is proven to save lives and is an essential component of protection for children across America and around the world.”
Over the years, despite a small and vocal group of parents who insist otherwise, studies consistently have shown no credible link between vaccines and autism. But pediatricians who have long reassured suspicious parents braced for another cascade of questions.
On Thursday, the parents of Hannah Poling, now 9, took their case public, sharing news that federal health officials had conceded that a series of vaccines she got when she was 19 months old exacerbated an underlying condition and ultimately led to her diagnosis of autism.
That concession -- thought to be the first of its kind -- makes her eligible for money from a federal vaccine-injury fund.
Many experts say that Hannah’s case is unique and that her rare condition led to a rare consequence. They say her case should not be extrapolated to the thousands of other autistic children whose parents think they were harmed by the vaccines.
“This is not an admission that vaccines cause autism,” said Dr. Neal Halsey, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
But the publicity surrounding the case -- the family held a news conference Thursday in Atlanta -- could set back public health officials’ efforts to convince parents that polio, tetanus and measles are far more dangerous than the vaccines that protect against them.
“Vaccines have been the greatest leap forward in childhood health in 100 years,” said Dr. Timothy Doran, a pediatrician at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. “There’s no pediatrician who would vaccinate if they thought [vaccines] were unsafe.”
Doran said he spent “a tremendous amount of time” explaining to parents that vaccines did not cause autism.
He said he reminded them that thimerosal -- a mercury additive long used as a preservative -- was no longer an ingredient in any shot except the flu shot.
“In some ways we’ve been so successful in eliminating disease that people are resisting vaccines,” Doran said. “If we had polio cases in the community, this issue of vaccines and autism would go away very fast.”
Hannah Poling was vaccinated in 2000, before thimerosal was taken out of vaccines. Her family described her as a healthy toddler who could speak 20 words, walk and point to body parts on command.
She had suffered a series of ear infections, so she was behind on her vaccinations when she visited her pediatrician.
“They did a catch-up on her shots -- five shots, nine vaccines -- in one sitting,” said her father, Dr. Jon Poling, a Johns Hopkins-trained neurologist.
Within 48 hours, she developed a high fever and couldn’t stop crying. Soon she stopped walking and became less verbal.