Diagnosing Vaccine Injuries

Vaccines are often described as one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.

That great benefit also leaves no doubt for most people that getting vaccinated and fully protected far outweighs the very small risks that vaccines might have.

Vaccine Injuries vs Vaccine Side Effects

Vaccines can certainly have side effects.

Fever, pain at the injection site, and redness and swelling where the shot was given are all common, mild problems that can be associated with almost any vaccine.

Some vaccines might also commonly cause fussiness, tiredness or poor appetite, and vomiting within 1 to 3 days of getting the vaccine. Others can cause a rash, headache, or muscle and joint pain for a few days.

Even syncope or fainting can commonly occur within 15 minutes of teens getting a vaccine.

Other vaccine side effects can include persistent crying, nodules at the injection site, limb swelling, and febrile seizures, etc.

These are well known vaccine side effects that are often minor and temporary though.

Is It a Vaccine Injury?

Although the term is typically associated with the anti-vaccine movement, as they tend to think everything is a vaccine injury, it is important to understand that vaccine injuries, although rare, are indeed real.

After all, vaccines are not 100% safe.

In addition to the milder side effects listed above, vaccines can very rarely cause more serious types of adverse events or injuries, including:

  • life threatening allergic reactions
  • brachial neuritis (shoulder pain and then weakness) following a tetanus containing vaccine
  • encephalopathy/encephalitis following a measles, mumps, or rubella, or pertussis containing vaccine
  • chronic arthritis following a rubella containing vaccine
  • thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) following a measles containing vaccine
  • vaccine-strain measles viral infection in an immunodeficient recipient following a measles containing vaccine
  • intussusception – following a rotavirus vaccine
  • shoulder injury related to vaccine administration – SIRVA

Keep in mind that some of these are just table injuries and are not necessarily proven as being caused by vaccines.

And while vaccines are associated with some serious adverse events, the research is clear that vaccines are not associated with autism, SIDS, and shaken baby syndrome, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, or other so-called vaccine induced diseases.

Or Is It Just a Coincidence?

Dr. Samuel Johnson once said that “It is incident to physicians, I am afraid, beyond all other men, to mistake subsequence for consequence.”

How does this apply to diagnosing vaccine injuries?

Too often we forget that just because one event is subsequent (happens after) another, it does not mean that it was a consequence (was caused by) the first event. It is another way of saying that correlation does not imply causation.

This is also highlighted by missed vaccine stories, events that would surely be blamed on a vaccine injury, except that a vaccine was never actually given for one reason or another.

Most pediatricians have these types of missed vaccine stories, such as:

  • an infant who begins vomiting on the way home from a well appointment and is diagnosed with intussusception (9 month old visit and didn’t get any vaccines)
  • a 4 year old who developed encephalitis just one week after his well check up (no vaccines – DTP had been deferred to his 5 year old visit)
  • a 2 month old who died of SIDS on the night of his scheduled well child visit (no vaccines as they had forgotten to go to the appointment)
  • a 4 month old who had a seizure at his well child visit (no vaccines were given yet as they were still being drawn up)

Or they have kids who begin to have symptoms or are diagnosed with a condition right around the time of a check up when they would routinely get one or more vaccines, but haven’t yet. From diabetes and POTS to transverse myelitis, some parents would have blamed their child’s vaccines if they had actually been vaccinated at that time and subsequently got diagnosed.

My own son started getting migraines when he was 12 years old and about to start 7th grade. Should I blame his headaches on his middle school booster shots? While it would be convenient, it is more likely that genetics are to blame. I started getting migraines at about the same age, and he began getting them just before he got his booster shots.

Diagnosing Vaccine Injuries

How do you know if your child had a true vaccine injury?

Does the reaction fit into the vaccine injury type AND “time period for first symptom or manifestation of onset or of significant aggravation after vaccine administration” as described in the NVICP vaccine injury tables?

That time period, also known as a risk interval, is when “individuals are considered at risk for the development of a certain adverse event following immunization (AEFI) potentially caused by the vaccine.”

For example, did your child develop an anaphylactic reaction within four hours of getting the DTaP vaccine? While a reaction 14 hours after the vaccine would be much less likely to be caused by the vaccine, if it occurred within 4 hours, that could certainly be a vaccine injury.

How about a child who developed thrombocytopenic purpura 90 days after getting his MMR vaccine? That is unlikely to be a vaccine injury, as the MMR vaccine typically causes TTP within 7 to 30 days.

If you think that your child has had a vaccine injury, be sure to talk to your pediatrician. You should also report any vaccine reaction to Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) and if you truly believe that your child has been injured by a vaccine, you can file a claim with the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP).

“You may file a claim if you received a vaccine covered by the VICP and believe that you have been injured by this vaccine.”

What You Need to Know About the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP)

How will your pediatrician figure out if it is a vaccine injury? Among the things that they will consider when evaluating a reaction after a vaccine will be the answers to some key questions, including:

  • Is there any evidence that something else caused the reaction? While getting a vaccine could cause an anaphylactic reaction, so could the fact that your child just eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
  • Is there a known causal association between the reaction and the vaccine?
  • Is there strong evidence against a causal association between the reaction and the vaccine?
  • Is there a laboratory test that implicates the vaccine as a cause of the reaction?
  • If the reaction is an infection, did it have a vaccine or wild type origin?

Your pediatrician will also consider other factors when making a decision, including whether other patients were affected (might implicate a contaminated vaccine), and will make sure that the original diagnosis is correct.

Being able to answer all of these questions often puts pediatricians in the unique position of correctly evaluating potential vaccine injuries. There is even a standardized algorithm that can help your pediatrician collect and interpret all of the data they will get when evaluating a possible vaccine injury.

Another algorithm can help evaluate and manage suspected allergic reactions, including immediate or type 1 hypersensitivity reactions and delayed type 3 hypersensitivity reactions. If the reaction is consistent with an allergic reaction and additional doses of the vaccine are still needed, possible next steps in this algorithm include serologic testing for immunity and skin testing with the vaccine or vaccine components.

For extra help, your pediatrician can consult an allergist or immunologist before considering giving your child another vaccine, if necessary. Experts at the Clinical Immunization Safety Assessment (CISA) are also available for consults about suspected vaccine injuries.

Over-Diagnosing Vaccine Injuries

In addition to vaccine side effects and vaccine injuries, it is much more common for children and adults to develop health problems and symptoms after getting a vaccine that have nothing to do with the vaccine. These are events, sometimes tragic, that would have happened even if they had not been vaccinated.

Anytime we see a post about vaccines and SIDS, we know what happened, an anti-vaccine Facebook group is taking advantage of a grieving family.
Anytime we see a post about vaccines and SIDS, we know what happened, an anti-vaccine Facebook group is taking advantage of a grieving family.

Despite the evidence against it, some parents may still think that their child has been injured or damaged by a vaccine, especially if they:

  • believe all of the vaccine injury stories they hear on the Internet
  • misuse vaccine package inserts
  • believe that VAERS reports have all been confirmed to be true
  • think that vaccine injuries can occur months or years after getting a vaccine
  • find a case report in PubMed and think that is convincing evidence of causality, even though it is really nothing more than a glorified anecdote
  • have found their way into a Facebook group where folks think vaccines always injure kids
  • go to a homeopath, chiropractor, or holistic practitioner who told them the child was injured

For example, studies have repeatedly shown that “vaccination does not increase the overall risk of sudden infant death (SIDS),” and that “the risk of SIDS in vaccinated cases and controls is neither increased nor reduced during the early post-vaccination period.”

What should you do if you really think that your child has a vaccine injury?
Just what a parent needs when their baby dies of SIDS, someone to reach out and tell them it was because they had him vaccinated… 

So a VAERS report of SIDS on the night that an infant received his 4 month vaccines, while tragic, would likely not end up being classified as a true vaccine injury.

Neither should a case report or package insert about SIDS influence your thinking about SIDS being associated with a vaccine injury.

Still, it is easy to understand why many like to blame vaccines.

Vaccines are an easy target, especially as most vaccine-preventable diseases are under fairly good control compared to the pre-vaccine era. And in some cases of SIDS, a new case of diabetes, or the sudden death of an older child, etc., it may happen soon after the child was vaccinated, and that correlation is hard to ignore for some folks.

At least it is hard to ignore and easy to be influenced by anti-vaccine folks if you don’t understand the background rate of these diseases – or the fact that a certain number of children will be affected no matter what, and because many kids get vaccinated, it is only a matter of chance that the two get correlated together. 

Vaccines are safe.

They don’t typically cause serious vaccine injuries.

If you do think that your child has a vaccine injury, talk to your pediatrician. Don’t get diagnosed in a Facebook forum…

More on Diagnosing Vaccine Injuries

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