Well Being

The Case of Hannah Poling

By  | 

Hannah Poling is the name of the 9-year-old autistic child whose “pre-existing mitochondrial disorder…. was ‘aggravated’ by her shots,” as was conceded last week by the government in the Court of Federal Claims. Today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution profiles her and her parents, neurologist Jon Poling and Terry Poling, a lawyer and nurse, note that the court decision “will help pay for the numerous therapists and other medical experts their autistic child needs — now and for the rest of her life.” More about Hannah's story:

The Georgia girl's case – and its implications in the vaccine-autism debate – raise more questions than it answers, experts say.

Some medical experts say it's difficult to fully assess the case because the federal vaccine-court documents are sealed from public view.

“It raised a lot of questions for us,” said Dr. David Tayloe Jr., president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP]. The national medical group's leadership has been seeking more information about Hannah's vaccine-court case since last week when a sealed vaccine-court document detailing the government's settlement was posted on the Internet by an autism book author, then circulated widely among autism groups.

(This would be the court case records that David Kirby wrote about in the Huffington Post last week.)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes that the AAP has been “trying to get access to official documents in the case so medical experts can delve into the science, assess whether there are implications for other children and answer questions from doctors and families” and continues:

“Our responsibility is to make sure the public is given good information and make sure the hype doesn't distract from public health,” Tayloe said. “I still would not think that we're going to have evidence showing a role of vaccines actually causing autism.”

According to the leaked document posted online, the government's Division of Vaccine Injury Compensation concluded that five shots Hannah received in July 2000, when she was 19 months old, “significantly aggravated an underlying mitochondrial disorder” and resulted in a brain disorder “with features of autism spectrum disorder.”

Sallie Bernard, executive director of the national autism advocacy group SafeMinds, called the case “unprecedented” in that a link between vaccines and autism is being made public. Federal health officials “have insisted there is no link at all between vaccines and vaccine components and autism. And apparently that is not true,” she said.

Hannah is said to have started showing signs of autism at “3 months” after receiving her vaccines, though the Atlanta Journal-Constitution states that symptoms of autism appear in Hannah when she was 19 months old.

Hannah requires one-on-one care at all times, said her mother, Terry Poling, a nurse and lawyer. The Polings described how Hannah was a normal, verbal toddler until she received several vaccines during a well-baby visit. Within 48 hours of the shots, she developed a high fever and inconsolable crying and refused to walk. She stopped sleeping through the night. At 3 months of age, she began showing signs of autism, including spinning and staring at lights and fans. For a while, she lost her ability to speak.

When Hannah was 6 months old, as the family came to grips with the likelihood that she was autistic, they turned to leading experts in neurology. “I had to know. My daughter didn't just suddenly develop autism for no reason,” Terry Poling said.

Hannah's father co-authored an article about her case, which was published in the Journal of Child Neurology in 2006.

Hannah, who has two older brothers, continues to have mild to moderate symptoms of autism. The family says early and ongoing intensive therapy has been critical for her.

“The biggest question right now for the public is: How unique is Hannah's case?” said Jon Poling. Poling said he suspects there are other children like Hannah.

Cliff Shoemaker, the Polings' attorney, said the family has filed a petition with the vaccine court to unseal all of Hannah's records and allow both the family and the government to fully discuss the case.

Despite this, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which reprersents [sic] the government in court cases, would not grant interviews or explain to the AJC why it isn't releasing the records. HHS officials, who administer the vaccine compensation fund, also declined to be interviewed, citing the court's confidentiality requirements.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution emphasizes that:

The language in the document does not establish a clear-cut vaccine-autism link. But it does say the government concluded that vaccines aggravated a rare underlying metabolic condition that resulted in a brain disorder “with features of autism spectrum disorder.”

It seems that there are more than a few issues here: (1) Did vaccines injure Hannah Poling; (2) did vaccines cause her to become autistic; (3) how “rare” is Hannah's “underlying metabolic condition”?