CBS News Investigates
September 14, 2010 12:17 PM

Vaccines, Autism and Brain Damage: What's in a Name?

Vaccines have saved untold millions of lives, and the vast majority of people who get them suffer no major problems.

But there's a trade-off: occasionally, vaccines cause injury or death. Very rarely, patients are left with what's known as "encephalopathy", the medical term for brain damage.

In fact, CBS News has found nearly 1,300 cases in which vaccine-related brain damage has been compensated in court over the past 20 years.

The debate over any links between vaccines and autism - a behavior problem triggered by brain damage - couldn't be more contentious. The great majority of medical opinion holds that vaccines don't cause autism. However, many of the same experts don't dispute that vaccines can, in rare instances, cause brain damage.

Family to Receive $1.5 Million + in First-Ever Vaccine-Autism Court Award

Learning From a Previous Vaccine-Autism Case

Our examination of federal vaccine court decisions over the years reflects this. Children who end up with autistic symptoms or autism have won vaccine injury claims over the years-as long as they highlighted general, widely-accepted brain damage; not autism specifically. But when autism or autistic symptoms are alleged as the primary brain damage, the cases are lost.

That doesn't make sense to families who see autism as a specific form of encephalopathy. But it makes perfect sense to the University of Pennsylvania's Dr. Brian Strom, who has served on Institute of Medicine panels advising the government on vaccine safety. He says the prevailing medical opinion is that vaccines are scientifically linked to encephalopathy, but not scientifically linked to autism.

"The fact that a person suffers autism and encephalopathy does not mean that the vaccine caused both of them," says Dr. Strom. "Even if it caused the encephalopathy, that may or may not have been the cause of the autism--those are two different questions."

Still, some families who believe vaccines caused autism in a loved one are circulating these words of advice: use "encephalopathy" in vaccine court and you're more likely to win. Argue "autism" and you're sure to lose.

"I purposely avoided mentioning 'autism' in the claim," says the attorney for a child diagnosed with brain damage and autism after her DTaP vaccination at 18 months. The lawsuit alleged only encephalopathy. "Using (the child's) autism diagnosis would have dragged out the lawsuit for years. The point wasn't to try to win the autism debate, it was to get this family the compensation they need to take care of their injured child." They promptly won a significant award.

Sharyl Attkisson's 2007 Report on Michelle Cedillo

The case of Michelle Cedillo, now 16, couldn't have turned out more differently. Her autism claim was a "test case" in federal vaccine court. If she'd won, it could have opened the floodgate for thousands more vaccine-autism claims to be paid. Michelle's attorney argued that an MMR shot on Dec. 20, 1995 directly caused her severe autism. But the federal vaccine court couldn't have been firmer in smacking down the claim last year, saying there was no credible proof that vaccines caused her autism. Michelle is also diagnosed with severe encephalopathy. Her mother, Theresa Cedillo, feels they could have won if they had simply based their case on encephalopathy. Mrs. Cedillo doesn't regret her daughter being a landmark autism case, even though they lost. But for future families, she says: "if you want to be compensated, I would say stay away from the 'autism' word."

Since the late 1980's, more than 2,100 families have received compensation for vaccine injuries under the federal program designed to help in rare instances of severe vaccine side effects. And more than half of those awards are for brain injuries.

Total Number of Brain Injury Cases Compensated in Federal Vaccine Court

(as of May 2010 and including the newly-released settlement of the Hannah Poling autism case)

Encephalitis/Encephalopathy: 639

Seizure Disorders: 656

Autism 1*

Total: 1,296

Source: HHS-HRSA (Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration)

*In this case (involving Hannah Polling), though the government conceded before trial, it took the position that vaccines didn't "cause" autism, but rather that the vaccines aggravated an unknown and previously undiagnosed mitochondrial disorder the child had which "resulted" in autism. It's unknown how many other children have similar undiagnosed mitochondrial disorder.

Neither the court nor the government is tracking how many vaccine-brain damage cases involve children who also ended up with autism or autistic-like behavior. When we asked for the statistics, vaccine compensation officials told us: "The government has never compensated, nor has it ever been ordered to compensate, any case based on a determination that autism was actually caused by vaccines. We have compensated cases in which children exhibited an encephalopathy, or general brain disease. Encephalopathy may be accompanied by a medical progression of an array of symptoms including autistic behavior, autism, or seizures."

When we asked why government officials aren't looking for the rate of autism among the brain damage victims who have been given compensation, vaccine compensation officials told us: "Anticipating large numbers of claims, the Court allowed the filing of 'shortform' petitions, but without medical records. As a result, a very small number of the pending 5,000 claims have medical records, making it impossible for us to review and compare commonalities, patterns, or any general trends among all of the petitioners. Over time, we may learn more about patterns of pre-existing conditions and the role vaccines play, if any, in their progression. As we have done in the past, the VICP medical staff will look at the court findings and any new scientific information, and may publish scientific articles as appropriate."

Dr. Brian Strom adds that unless an association between vaccines and autism is scientifically proven, it simply doesn't exist, as far as scientists are concerned. "One can always hypothesize that an exposure is linked to an outcome. The question for science is to prove whether or not that truly occurs more often than one would expect by chance. Absent that, a scientist assumes there is no association. It is analogous to a courtroom, where you are innocent until proven guilty. In science, there is no link, unless or until there are data proving a link."

More information

Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System

Special Federal Vaccine Court

The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP)

Vaccine Table of Injuries

mmr ,
brain damage ,
sharyl attkisson ,
compensation ,
cbs news investigates ,
michelle cedillo ,
encephalopathy ,
vaccine ,
federal vaccine court ,
autism ,

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by patrons99 September 26, 2010 7:31 PM EDT
Governments need to get out of healthcare. Our bodies still belong to us. Governments are supposed to act in the public interest, not the pharma cartel?s interest. Our personal healthcare choices should not be dictated to us at the point of a needle.

I don?t mean to sound strident or shrill. I do feel a certain sense of urgency, however, especially since the "flu" season of 2010, is fast approaching, and the drumbeat to be inoculated by pharma's mainstream medical media is deafening. Did we learn nothing from the pandemic flu fraud and hysteria of 2009?

Thankfully, I am not alone in my resistance to vaccinations, although I certainly feel lonely, at times.

?Childhood Vaccinations Hoax - Not Effective and at Worst, Harmful? by Heidi Stevenson.

?Thimerosal Study Deeply Flawed - How Study Results Are Manipulated? by Heidi Stevenson.

?Vaccine Near, So Fear Mongering Starts Over Another Mild Disease? by Heidi Stevenson.
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by ATR-PHD October 5, 2010 11:49 AM EDT
Are you familiar with the concept of public health? Your health is strongly dependent on the health of everyone you come in contact with every day. A person does not get sick in isolation. We pass diseases to each other by one path or another. Your opposition to vaccination is irresponsible. If you get sick with something you could have prevented then you are putting everyone else you come in contact with at unnecessary risk.
Would you prefer we cease all vaccinations because they are a violation of your rights and are "only lining the pockets of big pharma"? We could go back to the good old days of smallpox, cholera, killer influenza, pertussis, measels, mumps, diptheria, tetanus, polio, and others. Go look up how many people used to die of these things before safe, effective vaccines were available to prevent them then tell me it is a big hoax. All medical treatments come with risk, some more than others, but far fewer people have serious complications from, for example, the polio vaccine than would be cripple for life from the disease if we didn't have a way to prevent it. Smallpox alone is probably responsible for more deaths throughout history than any other single cause and it was wiped off the planet by a vaccine. Prior to that smallpox had anywhere from a 40-80% fatality rate. Life threatening reactions to the smallpox vaccine are onthe order of 1 in a million.
by sdtec September 22, 2010 12:47 AM EDT
And elemental mercury is not safe to breath at room temperature.

"The element mercury is a liquid metal with a vapor pressure of 0.00185 mm at 25 degrees C. This corresponds to a saturation concentration in air of 20 milligrams of mercury per cubic meter of air or 2.4 ppm . The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists has established a threshold limit for mercury vapor of 0.05 milligrams of Hg per cubic meter of air for continuous 40 hour per week exposure. Long term chronic exposure to mercury vapor in excess of 0.05 mg Hg per cubic meter of air may result in cumulative poisoning."

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by sdtec September 22, 2010 6:34 AM EDT
Correction: And vapors from elemental mercury are not safe to breathe at room temperature.
by dwiseriver September 22, 2010 7:50 AM EDT
THis is almost true. In order for mercury gas to be released from the surface of the mercury, the temps are much higher than 25 c. It must be heated to go anywhere. You can't breath mercury vapor at room tempurature.
by dwiseriver September 21, 2010 1:57 PM EDT
Nothing is perfect. Vaccinations save lives. Perhaps some brain injuries are caused by a vaccine; would it be better if the child dies of the desease vaccintated for? Stopping vaccination until some vaccine proves to cause no harm would most likely result in more deaths than with the vaccine. Would it be better to wait and let the people die? Perhaps we should wait until we can prove thier are no dishonest people in the medical and drug buisnesses. Are all people who have babies honest? Were the parents using illegal drugs or exposed themselves to hazardess chemicals or drinking more than 3 oz alcohol a day on a consistant bases? Aren't those viable variables that could be down played or lied about? Is it possible that a person who shares certain genetic characteristics with folks who's child is brain damaged that may have been caused by a vaccine or perhaps it predisposes those people who share that characteristic to some behaviour that puts them at risk to having a child with brain damage?
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by sdtec September 21, 2010 2:23 PM EDT
Please read the book Age of Autism.

Mercury kills brain cells.

Unused seasonal flu shots with Thimerosal are so toxic that they must be disposed of as D009 mercury hazardous waste.
by dwiseriver September 21, 2010 3:08 PM EDT
Mercury is toxic at high levels and if you put it directly on brain cells(in vitro). Test's taken out of context are unreliable. There isn't enough mercury in the dose to be toxic. Remember all the hyperbole surrounding amalgum fillings. One of the studies shown on tv showed vapor in the mouths of those with amalgum fillings and claimed it was mercury vapor. This is typical of the crap we are still getting from folks trying to undermine our medical community. Mercury evaporates at such a high tempurature that if it were mercury vapor the persons head would explode.

The sentence "Unused seasonal flu shots with Thimerosal are so toxic that they must be disposed of as D009 mercury hazardous waste." is a bit misleading. THe levels aren't neccasarily toxic if they are at a level to dispose of in toxic waste. A single Text is not enough to form an opinion on and certainly when there are folks with an ax to grind writing it.
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by sdtec September 16, 2010 10:37 PM EDT

Dr Frances O. Kelsey stopped the approved use of Thalidomide in the U.S.

"Kelsey's insistence that the drug should be fully tested prior to approval was dramatically vindicated when the births of deformed infants in Europe were linked to thalidomide ingestion by their mothers during pregnancy."


She wrote to the manufacturer that "The application is further inadequate and incomplete under section 506 (b) (1) of the act in that the chronic toxicity data are incomplete..."


Unused seasonal flu shots with Thimerosal are so toxic that they must be disposed of as D009 mercury hazardous waste.


The FDA and manufacturers of flu shots with Thimerosal preservative, recommended for six month old children and pregnant women, are not in compliance with the non toxic requirement under Section 610.15 of Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

"(a)...Any preservative used shall be sufficiently nontoxic so that the amount present in the recommended dose of the product will not be toxic to the recipient."

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by WarriorDad1975 September 16, 2010 7:49 PM EDT
Here are some thoughts to ponder:

1) Autism is not actually increasing. If you believe this, then you also believe that pediatricians 30 years ago thought all the autistic kids were either mentally retarded, or deaf, or some sort of other social disability. They never managed to notice that this large percentage of children had remarkably similar behaviours. They never seemed to notice that this mental retardation or deafness seemed to run in families. Also, I was never aware that failure to look someone in the eye was a symptom of mental retardation or deafness. Were our pediatricians of 30 years ago really that blind to the fact that so many children with similar symptoms were in dire need of help? My son?s pediatrician has 200 ASD kids in her practice. I can?t imagine a pediatrician so blind that 30 years ago she would have been labeling these kids as mentally retarded, deaf, or dismissing them as not having anything wrong.

2) Vaccine Injury is a myth. If you believe this, then why does the gov?t continue to compensate people who have been vaccine injured? You should contact them with your information and you can save them millions of $$. And if you believe that brain damage can be caused by vaccines, but autism couldn?t, how exactly are you so sure? Just because science hasn?t found a link yet? Maybe science isn?t looking in the right place. It wasn?t so long ago that science insisted there was no link between cigarettes and lung cancer. Seems ridiculous now, but if you tried to tell a smoker of 50 years ago that common sense dictates it can?t possibly be good for you, they would have labeled you a crazy anti-smoker and tried to ridicule you for ignoring the mountain of data at the time suggesting you were wrong.

3) Vaccines are the greatest invention ever, and are saving millions of lives. Actually, I believe the statistics indicate they are preventing millions of illnesses. That doesn?t necessarily mean saving lives. I?m sure they save some lives. But it?s coming at a cost. If you believe vaccine injury is a myth, fine. If you believe that brain damage is a possible outcome for kids with certain undetected conditions, why the hell are we not trying to screen children for these conditions and allowing them to depend on herd immunity?

Personally, I?m undecided on the vaccine issue. And I really think the thimerosol connection is a dead end. But it seems to me that the medical industry readily admits that brain damage is a possible side effect. What pisses me off to no end are the medical folks who are so busy patting themselves on the back for the wonderful vaccines they?ve created, that they?re letting the Hannah Polings of the world slip through the cracks, and there doesn?t seem to be the least amount of concern for the children like her.
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by J_Bishop September 16, 2010 6:16 PM EDT
Thank you Sharyl Attkisson and CBS News for this report.
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by jayroy007 September 16, 2010 5:06 PM EDT
Obama enforces vaccine use...Obama is a killer.
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by essfox September 16, 2010 11:54 AM EDT
By the way, it is not just mercury, people - it is all vaccines, some with mercury, some without. The cumulative effect of all vaccines has never been studied, has never been proven to be safe, nor has their efficacy, and they are a major contributor to a myriad of chronic health problems, starting often in the GI tract. Further, the CDC, FDA, Big PHARMA refuse to study the vaccinated vs non-vaccinated, again leading to questions regarding efficacy of the vaccine program as a whole
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by RickK101 September 16, 2010 4:39 PM EDT
It is unethical to run a placebo-controlled trial where some children get vaccinated and some don't. Children are not lab rats.
by ATR-PHD October 5, 2010 12:05 PM EDT
If you are willing to accept that animal and human immune systems work in a similar way then the efficacy of vaccines in preventing disease in the vaccinated organism is very clearly shown in data collected on animals.
by RickK101 September 16, 2010 10:50 AM EDT
There's so much hype around this topic, I put together a summary that maybe will help you with your questions. I have no agenda other than a desire to be a good parent.

Do vaccines cause autism?

Some parents claim they do. But there are many many studies that show no link between vaccines and autism:

Also, many parents have stopped vaccinating, or are vaccinating less over the past 10 years,0,3148179.story

but the rate at which autism is diagnosed is still climbing, unchanged:

If autism was caused by vaccines, and if many parents (as many as 40% in some wealthy California districts) are choosing to not vaccinate, shouldn't we see SOME change in the rate of autism diagnosis?

Also, there is very strong evidence that autism is genetic:,0,4441598.story

Is there an autism epidemic?

It sure seems like it, doesn't it? You never used to hear about it, then came Rain Man, then came Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Larry King and Oprah, and now everyone has an autistic kid.

So if autism is rising, all things being equal, then we should see more kids applying for special education assistance in school, right?

But we don't. We see about the same number (as a % of population) getting special attention in school that we saw 10 years ago. But more of them are diagnosed as having "autism spectrum disorder" and fewer are diagnosed with other disorders.

Other studies are similar. There may be a slight rise in actual cases of autism, but it's hard to see through all the "switched diagnoses" and the effect of greater awareness of the condition: "Honey, I just learned on Oprah that Johnny is autistic."

How did this vaccine-autism thing start?
In 1998 Dr. Andrew Wakefield at the Royal Free Hospital in England concluded, based on a study of 12 kids, that there was a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Since then, it has been learned that:

what he said about the kids medical histories was not true;

10 of the 12 doctors who co-authored the study removed their names from the study and published a retraction saying: "We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.";

While they were criticizing the MMR vaccine, Wakefield and the Royal Free Hospital were filing patent applications for an ALTERNATIVE VACCINE!

In addition, Wakefield was paid by lawyers who made their money filing claims of autism damage.

The Lancet medical journal has now fully retracted Wakefield, and he now faces professional misconduct charges.

Yes, Wakefield is charismatic. But it is impossible to ignore the fact that his results have not been repeated, his data was flawed, and he had multiple personal financial incentives to find the conclusions he published. This is a bad guy.

Is it really possible that this is all just hype??

Over the past 6 years, Americans convinced themselves that (1) it was just fine to give mortgages to people who had no down payment and no income; and (2) these mortgages became valuable assets when repackaged and sold by banks.

The entire premise is absurd, yet we ALL fell for it, and our economy fell into shambles.

Yes, it's possible for people to get fooled by hype, fooled in MASSIVE numbers. We're in a period where science=unnatural=bad. After all, sticking a needle into a baby seems grossly unnatural, and unnatural is bad, right? So blaming vaccines for SOMETHING just feels right.

But that is bad logic. Diseases are all natural, and they are bad. Very bad.

If you want a good site to link, try this:

Humans realized long ago that they could be fooled, and they started coming up with ways to keep from being fooled. That's where the scientific method, and controlled, blinded studies came from - a desire to not be fooled.

Comprehensive list of evidence against vaccine/autism link, including relevant studies:
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by essfox September 16, 2010 11:36 AM EDT
Wrong! the 'charismatic' Wakefield concluded NOTHING, he just asked questions. do your homework. this simple fact questions the credibility of all your other points! and the numbers at school for special needs, special diets, etc are way up. you don't need a study, you just need to talk to teachers and principals. it is not hype. and you lean just a little to hard on wiki - it is not that great of a source of accurate info
by T-smom September 16, 2010 1:24 PM EDT
RickK101 said: "strong evidence that it's genetic". this maybe partly right RickK101 but there has to be a trigger...

How many more Hannah's are there out there?

According to researchers, 1 in 200 people carry a hidden mitochondrial DNA mutation like Hannah Poling and don't even know it.. so perhaps it would be wise to prescreen children prior to vaccinating for MtDNA mutation should the vaccine aggravate their underlying mito disorder resulting in autism. If 1 in 200 carry an Mt DNA mutation it sounds like we may have an at risk population.

In addition to autism, mitochondrial dysfunction has been linked to many neurological and neuropsychiatric diseases incl. MS, ALS, Alzheimers, bipolar disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, Parkinsons.. According to mito experts, MT dysfunction is at the core of many diseases (see letter to Obama from mito experts below)

here's more on the subject ....

Large Reservoir Of Mitochondrial DNA Mutations Identified In Humans

ScienceDaily (Aug. 12, 2008) ? "Researchers at the University of Newcastle, England, and the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech in the United States have revealed a large reservoir of mitochondrial DNA mutations present in the general population. Clinical analysis of blood samples from almost 3,000 infants born in north Cumbria, England, showed that at least 1 in 200 individuals in the general public harbor mitochondrial DNA mutations that may lead to disease."

More on the connection between mito and autism..

Letter to President Barack Obama signed by over 50 Mitochondrial disease experts:
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by sdtec September 16, 2010 9:20 AM EDT
Corrected version:

Dr. Brian Strom is quoted as saying that "The question for science is to prove whether or not that truly occurs more often than one would expect by chance. Absent that, a scientist assumes there is no association."

This is the same utter nonsense that was offered by the Thalidomide manufacturer in defending the safety of Thalidomide.

Scientists do not assume that there is not an association.

Absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of absence of harm.

And besides, there is evidence of harm, although it has been improperly ignored based a false proclamation that the scientific method uses a legal term of weight of evidence.

Here is the evidence. "In conclusion, we can state that this analysis does not rule out that receipt of thimerosal containing vaccine in children under three months of age may be related to an increased risk of neurologic development disorders. Specific conditions that may warrant more detailed study include autism, dyslaia, misery and unhappiness disorder and attention deficit disorder."

"Thimerosal VSD Study, Phase One, Update 2/29/00, CONFIDENTIAL DO NOT COPY OR RELEASE," Verstraeten, Robert Davis, Frank DeStefano, page 9. See .

In fact, science does not use a courtroom tort law requirement that there be a "50 percent plus a feather" weight of evidence favoring harm. Neither is this a contest to win a Nobel Peace prize in biochemistry. This is an issue of safety for children.

And with significant data that indicates that there may be harm then the issue should be safety first.
Reply to this comment
by sdtec September 16, 2010 10:12 AM EDT
And besides, there is evidence of harm, although it has been improperly ignored based (on) a false proclamation that the scientific method uses a legal term of weight of evidence.
by J_Bishop September 16, 2010 6:31 PM EDT
"In fact, science does not use a courtroom tort law requirement that there be a "50 percent plus a feather" weight of evidence favoring harm. Neither is this a contest to win a Nobel Peace prize in biochemistry. This is an issue of safety for children."

You are voicing the same thoughts I had reading the conclusion of the report above. It's unsettling that the use of so-called "trace" amounts of a hazardous chemical compound in infants would be considered in that light--"innocent until proven guilty." I believed that our children's rights required that the "innocence" be well-established before the exposure allowed.

Where is the precautionary principle?
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