Top Drug Makers Face Potential Liability over Autism Linked to Infant Vaccine
Sunday Business, London Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Source: Miami Herald
Mar. 14 - Some of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies face potentially huge legal damages as a result of renewed fears about a vaccine widely used in Britain to protect babies from whooping cough.
A new American study claims that infants injected with the vaccine which uses a mercury-based preservative were six times more likely to develop autism than those given the version now used in the United States. The use of the mercury-based preservative was withdrawn in America five years ago; but the vaccine is still routinely used in Britain by the National Health Service (NHS).
Medical research submitted to the US Institute of Medicine has linked autism to baby vaccines which contain thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. The UK is believed to be the last developed country to continue to use baby vaccines containing thimerosal.
In the US, lawyers are already threatening a $50 billion (UKpound 28 billion, E41 billion) class action aimed at Eli Lilly, which produced thimerosal over the years in dispute.
The findings are potentially explosive in Britain because the Department of Health is still using a mercury-laced Diphtheria, Tetanus and whole-cell Pertussis (whooping cough) jab, known as DTwP.
These jabs are no longer used in America, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Austria or Spain because of health fears. DTwP's use in other European countries, like France and Germany, is not significant.
America's Institute of Medicine -- a panel of independent experts chosen by the US administration's National Academy of Sciences -- is now conducting a new investigation into claims that autism is linked not to the MMR triple vaccine, but to the use of thimerosal in the whooping cough jab.
In an evidence session last month Dr Mark Geier and his son, David Geier, from the Genetic Centres of America, presented a study drawn from the US government vaccine files tracking averse reactions to jabs.
The research, they said, indicated that children given thimerosal-based vaccines are twice as likely to develop a speech impediment and six times as likely to be diagnosed with autism. They also linked autism to a baby's inability to excrete mercury after vaccination. The Geiers' report breaks new ground in the long-running mercury debate.
David Geier said the evidence is pointing to a defect in newborns where they cannot excrete the mercury in the way that healthy babies can. "The evidence suggests that the children most likely to develop autism are those less able to excrete the mercury they received through the [DTwP] vaccine," he said. "They retain it, they have less mercury in their hair, and when they chelate [a process which expels toxins from the body] they produce more mercury." The Institute of Medicine -- which warned in 2001 that thimerosal has a "biologically plausible" link to autism -- also heard contrary reports from the UK and Denmark. which found no statistical link.
In Britain, the American findings could lead to lawsuits of the type about to swamp the US pharmaceuticals industry, which is being sued by parents who blame thimerosal for triggering autism in their children before it was withdrawn from infant vaccines by the US five years ago.
The US government has forecast 3,500 thimerosal claims next year alone for its Vaccine Injury Compensation Trust Fund. The Geiers have appeared as expert witnesses supporting those claiming compensation.
British health officials promised to phase out thimerosal in 1999; but the NHS is still buying millions of mercury-laced DTwP vaccine jabs from Aventis of France and using it on babies of two, three and four months. DTwP is half the price of Infanrix, a thimerosal-free jab produced by Britain's GlaxoSmithKline.
Infanrix, which the NHS uses only as a pre-school booster, has been repeatedly proven to have a far superior safety profile to the generic DTwP because it strips out the pertussis "junk cells" found to cause fever and convulsions in newborns.
Infanrix, also known as DTaP, is mercury free and also available on the NHS. But parents have to ask for it. If they don't the cheaper DTwP jab is almost certain to be administered.
The UK Department of Health told The Business that its main reason for continuing to use mercury-laced vaccines is that a baby receiving Infanrix is twice as likely to contract whooping cough than a baby receiving DTwP.
A British health official said that the department needed time to phase out mercury and is, in any case, convinced that thimerosal poses no danger at all to infants. "There is no evidence that thimerosal in vaccines can cause neurological disorders," the official said.
The official added that ethyl mercury, the type used in thimerosal, is rapidly excreted from the body, whereas methyl mercury, the one found in food, takes much longer to leave the body. Thimerosal is 49.6 percent ethyl mercury.