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Debate Over Vaccine Amendment

Last-Minute Addition To Homeland Security Bill Shields Makers

Jan 3, 2003 | MSNBC Many parents across the nation are still fuming over four small paragraphs at the end of 475 pages designed to protect America. Despite the lack of evidence, these parents are certain their kids were harmed by childhood vaccinations. But now, they’ve been stripped of their right to sue the vaccine makers. Why, and who did it?

KATHY KILPATRICK has to watch her daughter very closely. Six-year-old Mary-Kate is autistic and needs constant supervision.

“She’s different and she’s isolated,” says Kilpatrick. “She knows that she’s different.”

Mary-Kate is one of about 90,000 children in America diagnosed with this neurological disorder that impairs her mental and social development. Her parents believe her vaccinations are to blame, specifically a preservative added to them.

“I never once questioned the shots,” says Kilpatrick. “There was never any discussion of any risks involved.”

At issue is a vaccine preservative called thimerosal. It contains mercury and was used in child vaccines until 1999. Although a scientific link to autism has never been proven, thousands of parents believe thimerosal is the cause and filed suit against its maker, Eli Lilly.

But just days before the homeland security bill was passed this fall, an amendment was slipped in. It was part of a bill written by incoming Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and it closed off the major avenue by which people could sue a vaccine maker for illness.

“What it did to the families is it took away their last option, literally or figuratively closed the door on their last access to the courts of justice,” says Prof. Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University School of Law.

One of the most powerful members of Congress, outgoing House majority leader Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, was behind the amendment and argues that if drug companies weren’t protected, they might refuse to make vaccines, a big worry amid fears of bioterrorism.

“I’m proud that I put it in there and I know that it’s going to make America more secure, and that’s why it’s there,” says Armey.

But congressman Dan Burton is among those who are furious.

“For anybody to say they’re proud for putting that kind of an amendment in there is just beyond me,” says Rep. Burton, R-Ind.

Burton’s grandson is autistic. He also chairs the committee that oversaw the bill and says he was blindsided by Dick Armey’s last-minute addition.

“Now, he can take sole responsibility for it, that’s his prerogative if he wants to, but that amendment is criminal in my opinion,” says Burton.

Some critics of the amendment point out that drug companies give generously to the Republican party and that some top officials at Eli Lilly have close ties to the White House. Lilly’s chairman, Sidney Taurel, served on the White House advisory council on homeland security. Mitch Daniels, a former top Lilly executive, is now director of the White House office of management and budget.

The White House denies any influence.

Eli Lilly released a statement reading, “at no point did anyone at Lilly... past or present, ask for this language to be inserted in the homeland security act.”

Some members of Congress from both parties say they’re already trying to undo the effects of the recent legislation to once again give parents the right to sue in court — despite the absence of conclusive evidence to back up the families’ claims.

“There’s been no scientific connection made between thimerosal and autism, not in the medical community, not in the scientific community,” says Armey.

And for families like the Kilpatricks?

“Every night when I go to bed,” says Kathy Kilpatrick, “I think, ‘my God,’ what’s going to happen to this poor baby when I’m gone? She’s going to outlive me by 40 years.”

For now, this family and others wait to find out how the next move in vaccine politics might affect the quality of their lives.

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