Fact Check: Anne Schuchat’s Claim That Vaccines Can’t Cause Brain Damage

[Above image: Dr. Anne Schuchat, Director of the National Center for Immunization, Centers for Disease Control]

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass):

“Is there any scientific evidence that vaccines cause profound mental disorders?”

Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC:


                  –Testimony before Senate Committee, Feb. 10, 2015

The top vaccine official at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Dr. Anne Schuchat, recently left the impression that vaccines cannot cause severe brain injury.

It happened at a Senate hearing on Feb. 10 in an exchange with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) who seemed to be fact-checking a statement made by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

Paul, a medical doctor, had called vaccines “one of the greatest medical breakthroughs that we have,” but said parents—rather than government—should make vaccine decisions for their children.

He added, “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”

At the hearing, Dr. Schuchat debunked Dr. Paul’s premise without qualifiers.

“Is there any scientific evidence that vaccines cause profound mental disorders?” Sen. Warren asked.

“No,” replied Dr. Schuchat.

But is that accurate?

Watch Schuchat’s Testimony at 43:26

“Vaccines are extraordinarily safe,” says a medical doctor who has served as a government vaccine safety advisor on Institute of Medicine panels. But he says the risk of vaccine-induced brain disease is “not completely zero.” He asked not to be identified because vaccine safety has been made such an incendiary and political topic.

“It’s extremely rare but, yes, it happens,” said the safety expert. “We think it happens.”

Indeed, the DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis) vaccine was phased out of use and replaced by today’s version, believed to be safer, after the Institute of Medicine concluded it rarely caused neurological damage and death.

So has all risk of brain injury from vaccines evaporated?

The government’s own archives show the idea of vaccines inducing brain inflammation—sometimes called acute encephalopathy or encephalitis–and permanent brain damage have long been accepted in the mainstream medical community. A small sampling of the evidence follows:

1. The CDC lists brain injuries such as “permanent brain damage” as possible vaccine side effects.

The CDC states that reports of brain injury after vaccination are so rare “experts cannot tell whether they are caused by the vaccine or not.” But it clearly acknowledges that a link is possible.

Specifically, CDC vaccine literature states that “long-term seizures, coma, or lowered consciousness” and “permanent brain damage” are very rarely possible from DTaP, MMR and MMRV vaccines. Additionally, CDC literature states that “severe brain reactions” are very rarely possible from Varicella (chickenpox) vaccine.

2. The government compensates for some neurological complications of vaccination, including permanent brain injuries.

The concept of vaccine-induced brain damage is accepted in a special government program that compensates vaccine injury victims. In fact, there is such consensus that if a child’s post-vaccine brain injury meets certain conditions, financial compensation is automatically awarded without dispute.

According to the federal agency that administers compensation, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the presumed vaccine-brain injury link applies to an array of widely-used childhood vaccines containing tetanus toxoid (e.g., DTaP, DTP, DT, Td, or TT); whole cell pertussis bacteria, extracted or partial cell pertussis bacteria, or specific pertussis antigen(s) (e.g., DTP, DTaP, P, DTP-Hib); and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine or any of its components (e.g., MMR, MR, M, R).

From Oct. 1, 1988 to March 4, 2008, the government compensated 1,322 cases of encephalitis, encephalopathy and seizures after vaccination—all brain-related injuries.

3. The CDC acknowledges vaccine links to brain injury in its “who should not vaccinate” recommendations.

For example, CDC recommends “any child who suffered a brain or nervous system disease within 7 days after a dose of DTaP should not get another dose.”

For tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, CDC states those who had “a coma, or long or multiple seizures within seven days after a childhood dose of DTP or DTaP…should not get Tdap, unless a cause other than the vaccine was found [emphasis added].”

4. The Institute of Medicine lists an additional rare, causal link between vaccines and brain injury.

The Institute of Medicine states there is convincing scientific evidence strongly supporting a causal relationship between MMR vaccine and a brain illness called Measles Inclusion Body Encephalitis (MIBE). MIBE can, in very rare cases, affect people whose immune system is compromised.

[button link=”https://cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/29/4/855.full.pdf”]Read: Measles Inclusion-Body Encephalitis Caused by the Vaccine Strain of Measles[/button]

“Seizures and altered level of consciousness are the most common initial manifestations,” say medical experts, “typically followed by rapid clinical deterioration marked by worsening seizures, development of epilepsia partialis continua, deepening coma, and death in the majority of cases.”

See CDC Recommended Vaccine Schedule

CDC Response

In light of the substantial evidence that seems to cast doubt on Dr. Schuchat’s unequivocal answer, we asked CDC if it wished to make a clarification. A spokesman said Dr. Schuchat’s answer is “consistent with all reputable scientific evidence currently available.”

In response, vaccine safety advocate Barbara Loe Fisher says, “Perhaps Dr. Schuchat was stating her opinion rather than stating a fact.” Fisher heads the nonprofit National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), which supports universal access to vaccines as well as informed consent to vaccination.

“The Institute of Medicine has reviewed the medical literature and found scientific evidence that vaccines can cause brain inflammation (encephalopathy) and permanent neurological dysfunction,” says Fisher, who has served on multiple government vaccine safety panels and vaccine advisory committees.

The government vaccine safety advisor who does not wish to be identified says, “The medical community felt Paul’s comments [about people becoming disabled after vaccination] were highly irresponsible, especially since he’s a medical doctor.”

Government and medical officials often express the desire to strictly control the flow of factual information regarding vaccines because they fear if the public hears information that makes them become wary of vaccines, vaccination rates would decline and preventable diseases would re-emerge in epidemic proportions.

A crisis of that sort threatened the nation’s vaccine program in the 1980’s when vaccine manufacturers began to pull out of the DPT vaccine market due to a spike in lawsuits over DPT vaccine brain damage. As a result, Congress created a special program that protects vaccine companies from civil product liability for injuries caused by federally recommended vaccines. Vaccine injury claims are required to go through a special vaccine court created in 1988, and damages to victims are funded by a fee charged to patients on each dose of vaccine.


It would have bIMG_2288een accurate for Dr. Schuchat to answer Sen. Warren’s question by stating that it is very rare that vaccines are believed to cause profound mental disorders, such as long term seizures or encephalopathy, and that most medical experts believe the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks.

However, for her unqualified dismissal of the link between brain disorders and vaccines, Dr. Schuchat’s Senate testimony gets Two Little Devils.


 Additional Information:

A number of blogs have formed different conclusions about Dr. Schuchat’s and Dr./Sen. Paul’s views.

Read for yourself. Do your own research. Make up your own mind.

MSNBC declared Sen. Paul and his statement “crackpot,” “bizarre,” “kooky,” “far fringe” and “bizarre conspiracy theories.”

The Huffington Post portrayed Sen. Paul as a misguided outlier.

Daily Kos, Mother Jones and Slate.com labeled Sen. Paul an “anti-vaxxer,” though he’s made his pro-vaccine stance clear.

Salon called Sen. Paul’s statement “contested or disproven.”

Buzzfeed suggested Sen. Paul was pandering to “fringe” elements.

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