Vaccine Award Brings Solace - DTAP

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Vaccine Award Brings Solace - DTAP
Tue, 03-11-2008 - 9:12am

Vaccine Award Brings Parents Slight Solace

Immunizations left their daughter brain-damaged. Caitlyn had a seizure after receiving the shot two years ago.

By Paul Pinkham, The Times-Union

For Chris and Sarah Hoiberg, the multimillion-dollar award they and their daughter received from a national vaccine injury fund is a bittersweet victory.

The Jacksonville couple would much rather have 4-year-old Caitlyn back the way she was before a common cocktail of childhood immunizations left her brain-damaged and prone to seizures. Back when she was a normally developing child with a growing vocabulary and zero health problems.

Caitlyn hasn't spoken a word since receiving the shot two years ago and suffering a seizure the following morning. Her left arm is partially paralyzed and she still walks like a toddler. The family spent a nightmarish week in a pediatric intensive care unit, as Caitlyn had multiple seizures and slipped in and out of consciousness.

"I told Chris this might be it," Sarah Hoiberg said. "I thought she was dying."

In September, a judge on the U.S. Vaccine Court in Washington - where all vaccine injury cases are heard - made a rare finding that Caitlyn's injuries were caused by the DTaP vaccine, which combines immunizations for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). DTaP is a common child vaccine, regularly administered by pediatricians.

The U.S. Justice Department then settled the case for about $337,000 plus two annuities in Caitlyn's name that are worth millions of dollars. The exact amount depends upon her life span and future needs.

The money will come from a vaccine injury compensation program funded by a 75-cent surcharge on all vaccinations in the country.

"Everybody agreed at the end of the day that the vaccine caused her injury," said Alan Pickert, the Hoibergs' attorney, who represents 56 other Jacksonville-area families in Vaccine Court.

Bob Harmon, director of the Duval County Health Department, said the vaccine compensation program was set up for infrequent cases like Caitlyn's. But those cases are so rare, he said, "parents should not be concerned."

"On the balance, the benefits of the vaccines greatly outweigh the risks. There have been huge developments in child health because of the vaccines," Harmon said. "There are occasional rare complications with any medical procedure."

Those type of explanations anger the Hoibergs, who have not had either of their daughters vaccinated since Caitlyn got sick.

"That's something easy to say when it's not your child," Chris Hoiberg said.

Sarah Hoiberg never imagined how a routine trip to the doctor would change her family's life. She had taken her older daughter, Laura, for the same shots and studied them then. There were no complications. She remembers asking her pediatrician about literature that made note of possible seizures, and he told her he had never had a child react that way in 30 years of practicing medicine.

So when Caitlyn turned 19 months and it was her turn, her mother, like most parents, thought of it as a childhood rite of passage.

"We're law-abiding citizens. If they say to vaccinate, we vaccinate," she said.

But by the next morning, Sarah Hoiberg knew something was terribly wrong. She remembers checking on Caitlyn and finding her staring blankly, her left side rigid. She called 911, and Caitlyn was taken to the hospital with encephalopathy, a brain disease.

Sarah said she immediately suspected the vaccinations, but doctors tested her daughter for "everything from mad cow disease to cat scratch fever."

"I've never seen so many doctors so perplexed," Chris Hoiberg said.

Eventually, a neurologist at Nemours Children's Clinic identified the DTaP vaccine as the cause. His testimony made the case easier to prove and quicker to resolve than most vaccine injury claims, Pickert said. He initially cautioned the Hoibergs that the case could take eight years to resolve.

"There are multiple people out there who have vaccine-injured children," Pickert said. "They don't know they're vaccine-injured. They haven't connected the dots."

Today, Caitlyn has made strides, but her parents have no idea what the future holds. The vaccine award has allowed them to pay for therapy and will ensure she is cared for the rest of her life. But at best, her mother said, she'll probably always have to have an attendant with her.

Her parents urged others to educate themselves about the risks of childhood vaccines.

"You can't let fear run your life," Sarah Hoiberg said. "But it's not something to be taken lightly.", (904) 359-4107