A Family Struggles to Understand Seizures Following Vaccination
Feb 08, 2012

It’s understandable that parents can be concerned about adverse reactions to vaccines.  Although they are rare, we know they exist.  However, from a medical standpoint, it’s also important that parents realize that just because a medical condition surfaces in the hours, days or weeks following a vaccination, doesn’t necessarily suggest that the event has been a result of the vaccination.
Just last week, a business colleague of mine, who has herself been involved in a vaccine trial, shared a relevant story.  Apparently, another participant in the trial had fallen and injured her head during the course of the study.  Even though the fall was a result of dancing on a table in a bar, the injury required a complete investigation to rule out the vaccine as a possible cause.  While most people would laugh at such a ridiculous suggestion, it exemplifies the strict guidelines of medical observation and investigation required during a study of vaccine safety.
It’s likely that when the average person reads about a seizure shortly after vaccination, they may understandably make the assumption that the seizure was caused by the vaccine.  While dancing on a table may be an extremely odd association to attribute to a vaccine,  there are common medical issues that are often mistakenly blamed on vaccination.  Seizures are often one of them.
Take for instance Laura Cossolotto, the mother highlighted in this Washington Post article.  Her daughter Michaela developed seizures three days after receiving her DTP shot.  For years she made the direct association that her daughter’s worsening condition was a direct result of this particular vaccination and in reading the article one can certainly see why.  As the article explains,

Cossolotto, who spent hours online desperately seeking answers, found the vaccine hypothesis persuasive, particularly after doctors failed to offer another explanation.

The article then elaborated on Michaela’s worsening symptoms by stating,

Despite test after test, no doctor could say what kind of epilepsy she had, and no cocktail of medications proved effective in controlling the seizures. Nor did doctors know the reasons for problems that emerged as she aged: delayed speech, mild mental retardation and serious growth deficiency.

As I read this article, my heart went out to this family.  They suffered through more than ten years of testing, medication and attempts at treatment.  Fortunately, a proper diagnosis was finally revealed that would help explain why Michaela’s condition had nothing to do with her vaccination.

The blood test for the SCN1A gene revealed that Michaela had Dravet syndrome, also known as severe myoclonic epilepsy of infancy, a rare and serious form of the seizure disorder….Dravet is usually caused by a spontaneous — not inherited — genetic mutation present at birth that affects the functioning of brain cells…Its hallmark is severe seizures during the first year of life that are difficult to control. Many children with Dravet, which occurs in one in every 20,000 to 40,000 births, also exhibit poor language skills, behavioral problems and cognitive deficits. There is no cure for Dravet, but some medications are effective in controlling seizures….In many cases Dravet emerges when a baby runs a fever, which can occur after receiving an immunization. But, notes Wirrell, chief of pediatric epilepsy at Mayo, “it’s absolutely not the immunization causing Dravet” but rather the fever that causes the existing disorder to surface”. Wirrell, who has seen 20 children with Dravet, said that those who have never been immunized show symptoms after spiking a fever.

I offer this case for discussion because it highlights the complexities of defining various post-vaccination conditions as adverse reactions.  This story illustrates how easy it is for parents, and even doctors, to mistakenly believe a causal relationship between two events.  However, as science has revealed more about Dravet syndrome, it’s clear to see that it has also provided a more comprehensive understanding of how what may first appear as a adverse reaction to a vaccine is simply part of a child’s genetic makeup.  For instance, The Washington Post article refers to a 2010 study in Lancet Neurology which found that the vaccine did not affect the outcome of Dravet and illustrated that babies whose seizures began after the shot fared no worse than those whose illness surfaced at another time. Additionally, a 2011 report in the journal Pediatrics found that five children presumed to have neurological damage caused by the shot were later discovered to have Dravet.
Certainly, the Cossolotto family had reason to suspect that their child’s condition was brought on by the vaccine. However, we are fortunate to now have the scientific evidence that identifies Michaela Cossolotto’s condition as one of genetic origin.

The belated discovery of what was wrong with her daughter would upend Cossolotto’s long-held views and lead to major improvements in Michaela’s life…As a result of the diagnosis and proper medication, Michaela’s life has dramatically improved. Although she still grapples with cognitive and behavioral problems, her seizures have dwindled to only a handful annually…Without a diagnosis, Cossolotto said, she would probably still believe — erroneously — that the DPT shot caused Michaela’s illness.

It’s true that people who respect the science behind immunizations are sometimes suspect of parents who claim their child is vaccine injured.  However, this doesn’t mean they are questioning a parents’ integrity.  Certainly parents who make claims about adverse reactions believe them to be true.  However, if a reaction is suspected, immunization advocates will suggest that the incident  be fully examined and supported by scientific and medical evidence.   This may be the only way to know whether the reaction was brought on by a patient who had been dancing on a tabletop or who had an undiscovered genetic disorder.
Vaccine safety is certainly not a forum for speculation.  When it comes to investigating vaccine adverse events, we must continue to test new theories, while also accepting the evidence from those already tested.  After all, as Laura Cossolotto states, “Having an answer does make a difference.”

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