The Age of Autism: Anna's last days -- 1

By DAN OLMSTED, UPI Senior Editor  |  July 6, 2006 at 4:40 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 6 (UPI) -- On April 26 a Scottish child named Anna Duncan attended a party where two children had chickenpox. Nine days later she got her routine measles-mumps-rubella vaccination. Four days after that she developed classic chickenpox symptoms -- spots and fever.

One week later, on May 14, Anna was dead from an apparent seizure. She was 17 months old.

Now her father, John, is struggling with the sudden loss of a bright, lively child -- and increasingly suspicious that the MMR shot during an apparent chickenpox infection triggered her death.

Those suspicions deepened after he came across Age of Autism's recent investigative series, Pox, which found that giving MMR and chickenpox vaccines at the same time might raise the risk of autism in a susceptible subset of children. By happenstance, the series began the week before Anna's exposure to chickenpox and ended the week after her death.

In Anna's case, Duncan believes the chickenpox she caught at the party suppressed her immune system to the point that the measles virus from the MMR triggered a fatal seizure.

"I feel now that I have an answer to our daughter's death," said Duncan, of Cardrona, Scotland. "What I'm going to try to do with this is force a fatal accident inquiry, because there is a potential scenario here where it could happen again, and if (they) realize that this is a developing story, it can only get bigger."

The Pox series centered on several autistic children in Olympia, Wash., whose families had problematic histories with chickenpox and related herpesviruses. All of the children got the MMR and chickenpox vaccines, in most cases at their 12-month checkups; two of the children were in Merck & Co. clinical trials of investigational chickenpox vaccines in combination with the MMR.

John Duncan said that like the Olympia families, he also had unusual reactions to viral infections and experienced a monthlong outbreak of pox-like spots just after Anna was born. He took photographs at the time to document the spots, which spread diffusely from his abdomen.

"I believe her response to the MMR while infected with chickenpox was due to her genetic makeup from myself," Duncan wrote in a posting on the British Web site jabs.org.uk.

"Anna's normal response to a benign childhood illness, for which recovery was a formality, was interrupted by the MMR vaccine, which due to her understandable immunosuppression resulted in the replication of the measles virus -- 'virus replication,' an accepted and understood medical event in relation to vaccines."

It will be weeks before laboratory tests confirm whether Anna had chickenpox and health authorities rule on cause of death. But authorities in both Britain and the United States assert there is no association between the vaccines and serious health problems. They say the real risk is foregoing vaccinations based on unfounded fears.

The Daily Mail reported in June that "Britain is now in the grip of the biggest measles outbreak since the vaccine's introduction in 1988. Doctors have reported hundreds of cases of measles since January in just three areas of the country, including the death of a 13-year-old boy."

Last week "a group of Britain's leading pediatricians and childhood vaccination experts ... warned that more children will die unless a line is drawn under the autism and MMR vaccine controversy," according to Britain's Guardian newspaper.

"In an open letter, 30 scientists, including some of the country's most eminent child health experts, say that an overwhelming body of evidence shows the vaccine is safe. They add that urgent immunizations are necessary to prevent potentially devastating outbreaks among schoolchildren."

The MMR vaccine Anna received was Priorix, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline. Chickenpox vaccine is not routinely administered in Britain; in the United States it is recommended by health authorities for all children beginning at age 12 months.

John Duncan provided this sequence of events leading up to Anna's death.

Wednesday, April 26 -- Anna attended the party with her mother, Veronica, where one child was getting over chickenpox and that child's younger sister had all the symptoms of chickenpox.

Friday, May 5 -- Anna got her MMR shot at Haylodge Health Centre, Peebles, Scottish Borders; her mother questioned whether Anna's runny nose and exposure to chickenpox was a cause for concern. The healthcare worker said it was not.

Tuesday, May 9 -- Anna developed signs of chickenpox with spots appearing and a slight fever. This developed into what appeared to be classic chickenpox.

Sunday, May 14 -- Anna died around 9 a.m. with what appeared to be a seizure, with evidence of blood on her lips and on sheets in close proximity to her mouth.

"When Anna had chickenpox we gave her (a fever reducer) to bring her temperature down when it spiked," John Duncan said. "Her temperature according to her mother, who is a nurse, seemed to stabilize on the Saturday night through to Sunday morning, but Anna became restless early on Sunday morning and had two very smelly nappy (diaper) changes. A tired mother put Anna in her cot at around 6 p.m. as she seemed to be more contented on her own.

"Anna's death came as a major shock to us all because at no time did we think that she was going to die. The seizure would have been undetectable in the circumstances. I was with (son) Cameron that morning downstairs because I thought Anna had turned the corner."

Duncan said a doctor who came to the house to confirm the death told his wife it appeared "Anna had chickenpox." She may also have started developing new spots characteristic of measles, he said.

"I would say at time of death there were more measles-like spots appearing around her neck. But I cannot be too sure."

Duncan asked on the Jabs site: "Could this scenario cause autism? Is there a genetic susceptibility in some children to deal with the herpesvirus in a different way to the normal response, making these children more at risk to a bad reaction from MMR at the time of herpes infection? ...

"Had Anna survived her bout of seizure 10 days after her MMR, her brain very possibly could have been damaged and a diagnosis of autism eventually given."

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Next: Chickenpox and measles -- a troubling combination.

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E-mail: dolmsted@upi.com

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