THE NEEDLE AND THE DAMAGE DONEDec 19, 2002 Debbie Greco's son was a normal 3-year-old when, after finishing a round of childhood immunizations, he became withdrawn, aggressive, and slow to speak all symptoms of autism.
"I didn't know what was causing them," says Greco, a San Antonio native. "Friends have the same problem, but their children's doctor told them there was no need to question the use of vaccines. We didn't know about Thimerosal."
The coziness between the pharmaceutical companies and the Bush administration has harmed families but helped drug manufacturers, including Eli Lilly, producer of Thimerosal. The drug company's cause was recently buttressed after Majority Leader and Texas Republican Dick Armey(who didn't cop to the deed until last week) stealthily tacked on a protective clause to the Department of Homeland Security bill that prohibits families from suing Eli Lilly for faulty vaccinations — including those containing Thimerosal, which could have caused autism in thousands of children.
Nineteen-month-old Kristian Gallegos grimaces as he receives a vaccination by Nurse Dina Guillen at the Metropolitan Health District's downtown immunization center. The Health District no longer uses vaccines containing the controversial preservative Thimerosal.Photo by Mark Greenberg
"That clause should have gone through this committee and it didn't," said U.S. Representative Dan Burton (R-Indiana), a member of the House's Government Reform Committee. He has an autistic grandchild and is a harsh critic of Thimerosal.
Thimerosal prevents bacteria from forming in vaccines; it was used widely in in the 1980s and '90s. The mercury-based chemical also boosted drug companies' profits because they could sell multiple doses in one vial without fear of contamination.
Although in 1999 the Federal Drug Administration required pharmaceutical companies to remove Thimerosal from their vaccines, it didn't recall batches already sitting in doctors' offices, public health clinics, or hospitals.
As many as 30 vaccines have contained Thimerosal, including the Diptheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis combination; during the 1990s, health officials required children to receive additional Thimerosal-containing vaccines, including Hepatitis B.
The FDA knew the risks of Thimerosal years before it forced drug companies to quit using it in vaccines. In the 1980s, the FDA required companies to remove the chemical from all over-the-counter products, but not vaccines. By 1999, the FDA announced that infants who receive several thimerosal-containing vaccines might be overexposed to mercury, which prompted a ban on Thimerosal — but not a recall.
Some parents of once-healthy children, such as Debbie Greco, believe that the chemical has caused autism in their kids. Other parents don't know about the possible connection between Thimerosal and autism because there is an average of a 44-month gap between the initial vaccinations and the onset of symptoms. Autism was once a rare disorder. In 1970, about one in 2,000 children suffered from it; over the next 30 years — during the time children were being exposed to more mercury-containing vaccines that number has increased to one in 150, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A neurological disorder, autism causes developmental delays, abnormal language and thinking skills, and other erratic behavior. Expensive therapy and medicine — out of financial reach for most working families — can lessen the symptoms and allow autistic children to learn basic skills, but do not cure the disease.
The Grecos spend about $25,000 a year in additional medical and therapy expenses for her son. "My son's illness impacts our whole family for life," Greco says. "It's not something that is going away."
The federal government initially covered up the serious risk of Thimerosal-based vaccines. But a non-profit advocacy group, SAFEMINDS (Sensible Action for Ending Mercury-Induced Neurological Disorders), filed a Freedom of Information Act to obtain a confidential Thimerosal study conducted by the CDC. That study showed that children exposed to mercury from vaccines were more than twice as likely to develop autism than kids who were unexposed.
In July 2001, the CDC released a revised version of the study that downplayed the role Thimerosal had in causing autism stating the data was inconclusive.
Many scientists, such as Dr. Boyd Haley, chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Kentucky, believe Thimerosal is toxic for children. With smaller kidneys and livers, children can't process the mercury in their bodies as adults can. "Giving a 10-pound infant a single vaccine in a day is the equivalent of giving a 100-pound adult 40 vaccines in a day. We're talking about causing death; we're talking about causing autism."
U.S. Representative Burton has also taken the Bush administration to task for protecting drug manufacturers from litigation. He held hearings on the damage caused by vaccines containing Thimerosal and said there was "clear evidence on the relationship between the vaccines and autism." He has demanded that all vaccines containing Thimerosal be destroyed. "Every day that mercury-containing vaccines remain on the market is another day of putting 8,000 children at risk."
Dallas-based law firm Walter & Kraus is representing several parents in lawsuits against Eli Lilly and other pharmaceutical companies. Attorney Andy Waters accused Lilly of hiding the truth about Thimerosal and using its own biased study to promote it. "Lilly used an unethical study to help them sell their product."
Drug companies such as Lilly are also using their political muscle to protect their financial interests. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2001-2002 election cycle, Lilly contributed more than $6 million to various Republican committees.
Lilly has other connections to the White House: George Bush the First served on its board in the 1970s; Dubya hired Mitch Daniels, director of Office and Management and Budget, from Lilly, where Daniels worked as president of the company's North American operations.
Unlike the drug companies, the parents, families, and autistic children have no one to represent their concerns on Capitol Hill. "The problem is we have no lobbyists," Greco explains.
Without the political or financial power, Greco and thousands of families like hers have little recourse to hold drug companies accountable, especially when the pharmaceutical industry has so many friends in government to protect them.