Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has buried a provision in the "Protecting America in the War on Terror Act" to insulate the pharmaceutical industry from liability for venal actions that may have poisoned an entire generation of Americans.
Mounting evidence suggests that Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in children's vaccines, may be responsible for the exponential growth of autism, attention deficit disorder, speech delays and other childhood neurological disorders now epidemic in the United States.
Prior to 1989, American infants generally received three vaccinations. In the early 1990s, public-health officials dramatically increased the number of Thimerosal-containing vaccinations without considering the cumulative impact of the mercury load on developing brains.
Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in children's vaccines, may be responsible for the exponential growth of autism.
In a 1991 memo, Dr. Maurice Hilleman, one of the fathers of Merck's vaccination programs, warned the president of the company's vaccination division that 6-month-old children administered the shots on schedule would suffer mercury exposures 87 times the government safety standard (400 times the current U.S. government's safe level). He recommended that Thimerosal be discontinued, "especially when used on infants and children."
Merck ignored Hilleman's warning and, for eight years, government officials added seven additional shots for children containing Thimerosal.
Mercury is a known brain poison, and autism rates began rising dramatically in children who were administered the new vaccine regimens. A decade ago the American Academy of Pediatrics estimated the autism rate among American children to be 1 in 2,500. Today, the CDC places the autism rate at 1 in 166, or one in 80 boys. Additionally, one in every six children is now diagnosed with a related neurological disorder.
In 1998 the CDC's lead Thimerosal researcher, Dr. Thomas Verstraeten, complained to his colleagues in a secret memo that, despite rerunning and rethinking the research, the links between Thimerosal and autism "just won't go away."
In 2000, CDC, FDA and pharmaceutical companies called a secret meeting to review Verstraeten's findings. According to transcripts, participants were alarmed about the undeniable link between the mercury preservative and autism. Dr. Bill Weil told the group, "You can play with (the results) all you want. They are statistically significant."
Dr. Richard Johnston acknowledged he feared his grandchild getting vaccinated. But the group was most concerned with keeping the findings secret.
Numerous animal, DNA, epidemiological and other studies point to Thimerosal as the culprit in America's epidemic of neurological disorders.
Autistic children have been shown to have higher mercury loads than nonautistics, and there have been reports of significant improvements in some brain-injured children by removing mercury from their bodies.
Most of the symptoms of autism are similar to the symptoms of mercury poisoning. Recently, scientists have been able to induce autism in certain mice by exposing them to Thimerosal.
In a recent study, former FDA scientist Dr. Jill James uncovered a scientific link that helps explain why Thimerosal injures some children and not others. That study found that many autistic children are genetically deficient in their capacity to produce glutathione, an antioxidant generated in the brain that helps remove mercury from the body, a harmless difference until the child is exposed to large quantities of mercury.
Porter Bridges' experience is typical. In 1993, this healthy 4-month-old slipped into a coma hours after receiving his vaccines.
Today, 11-year-old Porter is autistic, hyperactive and severely brain damaged. He requires minute-to-minute supervision, is frequently afflicted with violent seizures and is not yet toilet-trained.
After a seven-year legal fight, the U.S. government acknowledged that Porter was damaged by his vaccines. There are now 520,000 autistics in the United States with 40,000 new cases each year.
High Cost of Care
The cost of caring for autistic children is conservatively $40,000 annually. Families with children with autism and other neurological diseases have filed more than 4,200 claims in the special federal "Vaccine Court." Some plaintiffs have also filed in trial courts.
Some Drug Makers Act
Thimerosal defendants include Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Aventis, Weyeth and Eli Lilly. Frist's newly proposed "anti-terror" legislation would create insurmountable burdens of proof for plaintiffs in these cases and forbid states from banning Thimerosal.
Drug makers wary of liability have reduced Thimerosal in children's vaccines in recent years, with the exception of Chiron and Aventis' pediatric flu vaccine. Mercury-laced vaccine stocks were given to children until the end of 2003.
Thimerosal's inventor, Eli Lilly, donated $226,000 to Frist's national Republican Senate Campaign Committee in 2002 and bought 5,000 copies of Frist's book on bioterrorism. Congress will vote on Frist's bill in the near future.
Instead of demanding the immediate removal of Thimerosal from all vaccines, and making the drug industry help defray the public and private costs of caring for injured children, Frist's bill would give the industry a free ride at public expense.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper and a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
© 2005 Knight Ridder