October 25, 2003

Homeland Security, Autism, and Shilling for Drug Companies

Some folks may get the idea that I only have problems with the left and with Democrats. Wrong. While the depths of silliness from the left draw most of my barbs, the right and the Republicans are not in my good graces either.

SO, a tale about our current majority, one very close to my heart. An example of how Big Business and campaign donations can add up to screwing the very weakest of us to the wall, in total violation of everything this country is supposed to stand for, all in the name of patriotism. Brought to you courtesy of the Bush administration and the GOP. It's long and complicated, and I don't even pretend to be unbiased, but it's also 100% factual.

No one likes trial lawyers all that much, just as no one likes ants in their kitchens. But when you think about it, just as those ants play a vital role in the ecosystem, trial lawyers play a vital role in keeping justice available to the little guys (that's us). So while I am in favor of keeping them on a leash, I am not an advocate of Dick the Butcher's policy in Henry VI ("...let's kill all the lawyers."). And then there's the Law of Intended But Unspoken Consequences....

One of the things done in the name of tort reform in the 1980's was to establish the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP). So many lawsuits were being filed against vaccine makers that they were threatening to pull out of the business in the US. The NVICP was meant to handle vaccine injury claims on a "no fault" basis so that people injured by vaccines could be compensated without chasing the drug companies out of the country through litigation. A great idea, done with the best of intentions, and a reform supported by almost everyone but trial lawyers at the time.

Flash forward to the 1990's. The NVICP has registered some notable successes in clearing up a backlog of acute vaccine injury claims, but only where the injury is so clear-cut that no one can even argue about the cause. If there's any doubt at all, cases tend to drag on for years, and it becomes real tough to find a lawyer to handle one. All the cases must be heard in Washington, attorney compensation is restricted to low book rates, and the attorneys can't be paid until the case is settled under a government-appointed Special Master. NVICP has become a totally dysfunctional bureaucracy with the rules set by the Dept. of Health & Human Services by fiat, and vaccine victims, even their doctors, are mostly unaware the program even exists.

At the same time, the number of mandatory vaccinations for infants rises from three to over a dozen, with recommended vaccinations rising to over twenty in the first two years of life. Right along with the rise in government-mandated vaccinations, the rates of autism, speech, behavior, and developmental disorders in children begin to rise precipitously. NVICP begins to get claims for vaccine-related autism and developmental disorders. They routinely deny all such claims, citing a lack of evidence of any link.

Fast forward to 1999. The FDA disallows the use of thimerosal in infant vaccines. At the time, most pediatric vaccines contain thimerosal. The FDA does not recall any vaccines already distributed, just requires that future production be done without thimerosal. So what is thimerosal? It's methyl mercury used as a preservative, also known as merthiolate. Mercury, by the way, is one of the most poisonous substances on earth, with known severe effects on infant neural development. Thimerosal had already been pulled from veterinary vaccines by FDA edict, a full decade earlier, because of mercury exposure concerns. Our pets get better oversight than our kids.

2001. The CDC produces the first draft of a massive study that indicates a roughly 250% increased risk of autism among children exposed to injected thimerosal, with the incidence of autism rising proportionally with increased exposure levels. The draft study is immediately classified and buried, the final public release months later claims no link but has had data crudely and extensively altered, and the lead author says publicly that the butchering of the data renders the final study meaningless. He subsequently takes a very high-paying job with GlaxoSmithKline, at which point he starts refusing to discuss the study at all. NVICP continues to disallow thimerosal-related autism claims, citing lack of evidence. Parents of autistic children begin to sue vaccine makers under product liability statutes, saying that unnecessary additives such as thimerosal are not the same as the vaccine itself. Some courts agree. Some don't. Pharmaceutical companies panic and start lobbying. A Danish study comes out finding no relation between MMR vaccination and autism. Drug companies proudly trumpet the study, but don't bother to mention that MMR vaccines in Denmark have never contained thimerosal, and that the study group was too small for drawing any real conclusions.

2002. The Homeland Security bill passes Congress, with three small clauses anonymously inserted in the dead of night tacked onto the end of the bill. These three clauses define ALL substances in a vaccine, even contaminants and preservatives, as integral parts of the vaccine, exempt the drug companies from ANY liability associated with such additives or contaminants, and wipe out ALL existing lawsuits based on such claims, forcing them into the NVICP. A few (very few) "Liberal" Republicans rebel, and the bill is passed only with the assurance that those three clauses will be stripped from the bill in the next Congress. For most parents of autistic children, this is the first time they become aware of any demonstrated link between vaccinations and autism. [UPDATE: The clause was indeed stripped from the legislation in February.]

At this point it's important to note that NVICP is totally geared, when it works at all, to compensate acute vaccine reactions. It was not designed for, and has no provisions for, chronic disabilities that might be caused by vaccines. At the time, no one knew of any chronic injuries associated with vaccination that didn't have immediate symptoms. NVICP thus has a 3 year statute of limitations from date of injury, NOT from date of discovery, in which to file a claim. This statute trumps ALL state statutes of limitations, even as regards minors. If an injury was caused more than three years ago and not diagnosed or the causation not discovered until after the statute ran out, NVICP's response is too bad for you. You can't sue in any court. You can't file a claim with NVICP. You're just plain shit outa luck. By the way, the average age of diagnosis for autism is 43 months, and the initial injury is presumed to occur with that first HepB vaccination on the day of birth. Do the math.

2003. The American Journal of Physicians and Surgeons publishes a landmark independent study on autism, developmental disorders, and thimerosal in vaccinations. The findings almost exactly replicate those of the government-suppressed CDC draft study, not the final release. The new study shows an overall 250% increased risk of autism and speech disorders for children exposed to injected thimerosal, with risk rising with increased exposure levels.

And the GOP and the Bush admin continue to try to pass legislation wiping out all those product liability suits targeting thimerosal-related autism, claiming they must do so to muzzle the trial lawyers, and to "protect our national security." Even their proposed NVICP "reforms" have a six year limit built in, which would exlude all children born before 1997. The greatest class of injured children would be those born between 1989 and 1999. Can you say "minimizing the potential monetary damages" and "aging out the plaintiff class?" I suppose it's just a coincidence that the drug companies were about the biggest donors to the Republicans in the last few election cycles....

[UPDATE: The competing House and Senate reform bills are stalled in committee, over the issue of "look back" provisions that would allow cases to be filed by those injured more than six years previous--which is now almost all of the class of injured children, given the 1999 order to quit manufaturing pediatric vaccines with Thimerosal in them. Representative Burton keeps trying to get the "look back" provision included. Senator Frist keeps fighting tooth and nail to get it excluded. Guess which one gets piles of money from the pharmaceutical companies? Welcome to Washington! "The U.S. Government crippled my child and I can't even AFFORD a lousy T-shirt!"]

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