When Hannah Poling, a little red-headed girl with autism-like symptoms, received a settlement from a special federal compensation court in 2007, her case cast doubt in many people’s eyes about what they had been told all along about the safety of vaccinations and the many studies showing that they do not cause autism. At the very least, the $1.5 million award to provide care for Hannah was mightily confusing to the general public. Did a court just say that vaccines cause autism or not?
No, it didn’t.
Nine years later, a decision in another case clarifies the answer to the questions surrounding the Hannah Poling case. In rejecting a claim by Brian and Marcie Hooker that vaccination had caused their son’s autism—or possibly worsened already-existing autism—the Special Master for the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program laid out the vaccine court's position in the Poling case and another, somewhat similar case that followed: The compensation did not mean that vaccines cause autism.
“In Poling v. HHS, the presiding special master clarified that the family was compensated because the Respondent conceded that the Poling child had suffered a Table Injury--not because the Respondent or the special master had concluded that any vaccination had contributed to causing or aggravating the child’s ASD (autism spectrum disorder),” Special Master George L. Hastings Jr. wrote.
In a second case, another special master also concluded that a child had suffered a Table Injury after a vaccination. However, Hastings, pointed out, “She specifically found that the evidence in that case did not support a ‘causation in fact’ claim, going so far as to remark that the petitioners’ ‘causation in fact’ theory in that case was ‘absurd.’ “
A table injury means an illness or condition that is listed on a chart specifically created for the compensation program. The chart lists the kinds of vaccines, the possible conditions that might follow vaccination, and the time period within that condition must occur in order to be considered eligible for an award. If patients develop one of the specified illnesses or conditions within the amount of time listed, they can be eligible for compensation even if they can’t establish a link between the two.
In these cases, the table injury was encephalopathy, a disease that affects the functioning of the brain. But “following” vaccination is not the same as “caused by” vaccination.
“The compensation of these two cases thus does not afford any support to the notion that vaccinations can contribute to the causation of autism,” Hastings wrote. “In setting up the Vaccine Act compensation system, Congress forthrightly acknowledged that the Table Injury presumptions would result in compensation for some injuries that were not, in fact, truly vaccine-caused.”
In other words, it is easier for families to win compensation under the program than it would be in court, where they would have to convince a judge or jury that the vaccine had caused the problem.
The Poling case not only led to years of speculation about the possible relationship between vaccines and autism, but gave rise to a strange conspiracy theory that the compensation program was a “secret court” that had been set up to quietly pay people off because the government supposedly “knew” about such a link but was trying to keep it from the public.
In fact the vaccine court, as it’s commonly called, was created by Congress as a no-fault system after several civil suits resulted in damages that had to be paid by the manufacturers of the DTaP vaccine. Several manufacturers of the vaccine were withdrawing from the market. The disappearance of the vaccine would have had devastating consequences for public health, so the law provided money for a separate compensation fund through a small tax on vaccines.
If the program is a secret, it’s a very badly kept one. It has been widely reported on, especially after the Poling case, and many people have known about it since its inception in 1988. Sad to say, the cases in which the compensation program rules against patients tend to get much less coverage, leading to the conclusion, without basis, that the people in this program know a terrible truth about vaccines that they are keeping quiet.
Nor are there many headlines when the compensation court states, as it has done before, that its decisions have not meant that vaccinations cause autism. Now that Hastings has made the meaning of the Poling case clear, it would sure be helpful if the public knew as much about his statements as they did about the $1.5 million award.
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