Vaccines Cause Seizures?: Samuel Berkovic, An Unsung Hero

Samuel BerkovicTo begin, vaccines do not cause epilepsy, a group of neurological disorders characterized by seizures. Seizures, which are a transient symptom of “abnormal excessive or synchronous neuronal activity in the brain,” are more common than the average person realizes, especially during the first year of life. In the United States alone, as many as 150,000 children develop seizures as the result of a fever. Seizures caused by fevers are known as febrile seizures. (Because vaccines can cause fevers, vaccines can cause one-time febrile seizures, although rarely.) Most of these children who experience febrile seizures never suffer another seizure. However, approximately 30,000 children develop epilepsy each year, although febrile seizures and epilepsy are not linked. Vaccines have never been scientifically linked as a cause of epilepsy.

However, in April 1982, reporter Lea Thompson erroneously opened the door to the “vaccines cause epilepsy” anti-vaccine movement in the United States. In a one-hour television program entitled DPT: Vaccine Roulette, Thompson claimed that the pertussis vaccine in the diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus vaccine caused brain damage as well as epileptic seizures. She paraded disabled child after disabled child across the screen, claiming that the pertussis vaccine caused the disability. In the ensuing paranoia from the anti-vaccine movement, researchers throughout the world sought to determine whether the pertussis vaccine cause brain damage, seizures, epilepsy, and other health problems.

Not a single legitimate, authoritative study concluded that the pertussis vaccine caused brain damage or epilepsy.

In 1988, Lord Justice Murray Stuart-Smith, the judge on the trial that ended all pertussis vaccine trials in English, delivered his verdict. After listening to the arguments and reading the evidence, he proclaimed: “On all the evidence, a plaintiff had failed to establish, on a balance of probability, that pertussis vaccine used in the United Kingdom and administered intramuscularly in normal doses could cause permanent brain damage in young children.”

Despite the scientific evidence and legal ruling that the pertussis vaccine did not cause brain damage including epilepsy, the question still remained: “What caused the brain damage and epileptic seizures in the children that Lea Thompson paraded through her television program?”

In 2006, Samuel Berkovic — director of the Epilepsy Research Center, scientific director of the Brain Research Institute, and the Laureate Professor in the department of medicine at the University of Melbourne — uncovered the answer. Between 1982 and the present, the medical community made great strides in understanding the genetic causes of epilepsy syndromes. Berkovic hypothesized that the epilepsy and intellectual disability in the children paraded through DPT: Vaccine Roulette was actually Dravet’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder with symptoms similar to the symptoms Thompson claimed vaccines caused.

After evaluating fourteen individuals with severe epilepsy and intellectual disability who developed their first seizure between two and eleven months and who had received the pertussis vaccine within four-eight hours prior to their first vaccine, Berkovic discovered that eleven of the fourteen had a genetic defect that resulted in the symptoms associated with Dravet’s Syndrome. Vaccines cannot change the genes of an individual. All of the eleven children would have developed seizures and intellectual disability regardless of vaccination history based on their genetics.

Berkovic put the final nail in the “vaccines cause epilepsy and brain damage” coffin. The seizures experienced by individuals with Dravet’s Syndrome are caused by a genetic defect and are 100% unrelated to vaccines. That some children with Dravet’s Syndrome developed their first symptoms shortly after receiving the pertussis vaccine is nothing more than coincidence. Had the children not been vaccinated, the symptoms would have still occurred.

Samuel Berkovic is an unsung hero. Using genetics, he conclusively proved that the pertussis vaccine did not cause the epilepsy and brain damage in the children that Lea Thompson paraded through her dubious television program in 1982. Although vaccines can cause one-time febrile seizures, vaccines do not and cannot cause the seizures and intellectual disability characteristic of Dravet’s Syndrome.


Offit, Paul A. 2011. Deadly choices: How the anti-vaccine movement threatens us all. Basic Books: New York.

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