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Parents' Struggle Over Children's Autism Frustrated By Bill Signed By Bush

Dec 1, 2002 | Modesto Bee

The monster turned by the time Adam Reed was 2.

He stopped talking. He would not eat. He simply rocked and stared. In time, doctors diagnosed the Manteca boy as autistic.

Now, though Adam shows improvement, his parents are in court.

They are among at least 40 Californians suing makers of the vaccines that the plaintiffs consider responsible for their children's autism. It is a tough legal case, which just got more difficult.

In a vivid flexing of pharmaceutical industry muscle, the homeland security bill newly signed by President Bush squelches or, at the least, bumps off course the vaccination lawsuits. This means the end of approximately 100 lawsuits, and a half-dozen or so class-action lawsuits, filed nationwide.

"It makes me very angry," Adam's mother, Genett Reed, said.

She is not alone in her convictions, or her frustrations.

Mary Wyrick's 6-year-old daughter, Annie, does not talk. A Clovis resident, Wyrick is convinced that Annie was particularly susceptible to harm from mercury-laden vaccines. Annie showed a severe reaction to her first set of shots and showed as well high levels of mercury inside her body.

Wyrick said last week that she had been preparing for a lawsuit against the drug manufacturers that she holds responsible for Annie's autism.

Advised that such a lawsuit could not proceed under the bill signed by Bush, Wyrick gasped.

"I'm really disappointed that he would take that right away from us," Wyrick said.

One-third of California parents of autistic children diagnosed in the mid-1990s blame vaccines, a University of California at Davis survey issued last month found. The study, completed by the university's Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute, did not pinpoint a cause for the state's stunning rise in autism cases.

Skepticism can't stop questions

But parental questions about vaccines persist, despite official skepticism about any link to autism.

California's 273 percent increase in reported autism between 1987 and 1998 is forcing parents and lawmakers alike to dig into root causes.

"We're angry that nobody was willing to listen to us," Reed said, adding that her lawsuit was designed "primarily to let people know that this can happen to their child."

Drug companies, in turn, complain that constant litigation threatens their ability to supply the public. Slipped at the last minute into the bill establishing the Department of Homeland Security, the provision protects drug companies not just against future lawsuits, but also against those already filed.

"A number of lawsuits that are without merit have been filed," Ed Sagebiel, spokesman for drug manufacturer Eli Lilly, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "That's why this legislation is a good idea. It prevents groundless lawsuits."

A handful of moderate Republicans joined with Democratic lawmakers in vowing an uphill fight next year to restore the vaccination lawsuit option. Republican leaders consented to consider revising the lawsuit provision next year but did not commit themselves to eliminating it.

The companies now can cite the law in asking judges to dismiss the lawsuits in state and federal courts. Texas attorney Andy Waters, who represents Reed and half a dozen other Central Valley parents, said he hopes he can maneuver to keep at least part of the lawsuits alive.

Parents, however, still can go to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. This is the same court already used by parents who claim that their children suffered other vaccine injuries.

Conceivably, parents can win hundreds of thousands of dollars to help pay for their children's treatment.

Dollar awards in the claims court come from the government and widespread industry fees rather than from individual companies.

And this is where politics might enter the picture: The pharmaceutical industry gave at least $14.5 million to federal candidates since last year, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. And Eli Lilly's former senior vice president, Mitch Daniels, is now Bush's budget chief.

In San Joaquin Valley homes, though, these legislative and litigation details seem a bit removed from the day-to-day challenge of raising autistic children.

Vaccinations caused withdrawal

Reed is the 30-year-old owner of a dog grooming business.

Her husband, Nathan, installs alarms. Adam is their only child. He was thoroughly happy and developing well, Genett Reed said, until he started getting shots designed to protect him from diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella.

"After every vaccination, he would withdraw more and more," she said. Until, "after his last set of shots, he just withdrew completely."

Research through the Internet and library convinced Reed that her son might have been harmed by Thimerosal, a preservative containing mercury, formerly used in childhood vaccines. Tests of Adam's urine showed mercury present at nearly five times expected levels.

Adam's original doctor was doubtful about linking the vaccines and autism. So are the federal Institute of Medicine scientists who have completed their own review.

"Preliminary data from a few studies have suggested that Thimerosal-containing vaccines could possibly very minimally affect some measures of normal child development," said Dr. Marie McCormick, chairwoman of the Institute of Medicine's study panel. "But the data are inconclusive."

McCormick added in her report that the evidence was "inadequate to either accept or reject a causal relationship between exposure to Thimerosal from vaccines" and autism.

This ambiguity will complicate any case filed in claims court.

The court has an established no-fault system for handling vaccine injuries, though it does not always work quickly. But autism, unlike shock or encephalitis, is not listed among the conditions presumed to be caused by vaccines. That means parents still must prove the vaccine caused the condition.

Adam, meanwhile, has been showing improvement after undergoing some controversial therapy designed to rid his body of toxins. Reed said her son is making eye contact, showing affection and once more using the words more precious than gold: Mommy and Daddy.

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