JACKSONVILLE, FL -- Jacksonville attorney Alan Pickert calls thimerosal "the new asbestos."
"The parallels are absolutely there. Right now, there are a few brave doctors crying in the wilderness that thimerosal is a major health concern. It was the same way for years with asbestos. Just a few doctors raising the alarm. At the same time, I can't tell you how many corporate executives, other doctors, attorneys, the whole bunch, would fight me, saying 'Only kooks think asbestos causes cancer!'"
He pauses. "Of course, history has proven them wrong, and in the end that will be the outcome with this issue, too."
Pickert, who made a name for himself successfully representing more than 4,000 clients who had compelling evidence asbestos exposure caused their cancer, is now taking up the gauntlet on behalf of 62 First Coast families who say exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines caused neurological damage in their children. Through the personal injury firm Brown, Terrell, Hogan, he is representing them as they petition Vaccine Court, a special tribunal of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, for compensation related to their childrens' developmental problems and the related costs of care.
Jacksonville registered nurse Cindy Hartman is one of his clients. Her five-year-old son Trent is currently undergoing biomedical therapies after being diagnosed along the autism spectrum when he turned 3.
Hartman spends her entire salary from her nursing position at Jacksonville's St. Luke's Hospital on Trent's supplements, behavioral therapy, and other treatments, which also involve visits to a specialist in Wisconsin. Chelation therapy, which removes heavy metals like mercury from the body, is part of the regimen. The tab is approximately $3,000 a month. Hartman says the treatments, while expensive, have been very beneficial, seeming to bring about a marked improvement in Trent's cognitive and behavioral skills.
"I'm lucky that my husband's salary pays the rest of the bills," she says. "Other families have it much rougher."
Families seeking to prove their children were injured by vaccines must petition the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Plan before taking their case to state or federal court. The maximum amount of damages the government doles out through Vaccine Court claims is capped at $250,000.
And Pickert says, the statute of limitations on such claims is short. A parent must file within three years of a child's onset of symptoms to be eligible for compensation.
Thimerosal, until recently a commonly used preservative in childhood immunizations, is 49.6% mercury by weight. Mercury is a known neurotoxin--second to uranium, the most toxic substance on the planet. It has been removed from most vaccines, due in part to concerns it may have damaged some children, but as the First Coast News I-Team has reported, it is still present in some non-routine vaccinations, including most flu shots.
Now, the Office of Special Counsel in Washington, D.C. is wading into the thimerosal debate, demanding a congressional investigation into studies suggesting a link between thimerosal and rising rates of autism. Special Counsel Scott Bloch, charged with investigating whistleblower complaints and abuses of authority, issued his statement in response to a recent Institute of Medicine report that concluded there is no provable link between thimerosal and autism. The IOM report also dismissed concerns some parents and researchers have expressed over the MMR, or measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, saying there is no compelling evidence the MMR has potential to harm, either. The IOM finding concludes by urging that no further research be conducted regarding thimerosal, and that other potential causes of autism should be explored instead.
Special Counsel Bloch says, "It appears the science is inconclusive, not definitive.. there appears to be equally qualified experts on both sides of the emotional scientific and medical debate. This strikes me as a far-reaching public health issue that warrants further study and awareness, particularly because it affects the most vulnerable among us."
He adds, "It appears there may be sufficient evidence to find a substantial likelihood of a.. specific danger to public health caused by the use of thimerosal/mercury in vaccines because of its inherent toxicity... I believe these allegations raise serious continuing concerns about the administration of the nation's vaccine program and the government's possibly inadequate response to the growing body of scientific research on the public health danger of mercury in vaccines."
Bloch is asking Senator Judd Gregg, Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Rep. Joe Barton, Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, to further investigate the matter in their capacity as committee chairmen with oversight for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
First Coast News has published highlights of studies on our website, both confirming and rejecting the theory that thimerosal is linked to rising autism rates. According to Bloch's letter, government-sponsored studies disproving a link "have not assessed the genetic vulnerabilities of subpopulations."
Dr. Jeff Bradstreet of Melbourne, whom First Coast News profiled in February, has published studies suggesting a subset of children is genetically vulnerable to mercury. Dr. Boyd Haley of the University of Kentucky has published similar work. Dr. Richard Deth of Northeastern University published a damning study on thimerosal earlier this year in "Molecular Psychiatry." And Dr. Mark Geier and his researcher son David, of Silver Spring, Maryland, also published a study finding a correlation between thimerosal and autism after becoming the only independent researchers allowed access to the CDC's Vaccine Safety Datalink.
But according to Dr. Steve Cochi of the Centers for Disease Control, whom First Coast News interviewed in May, such studies "have not been replicated or subjected to sufficient peer review." He points out, there are many published studies "completely disproving a link."
However, Bloch also references allegations of collusion which the First Coast News I-Team first disclosed in February. We reported details of a secret June 2000 conference in Norcross, Georgia, at which representatives from the CDC, the FDA, and pharmaceutical companies discussed the results of an internal CDC study finding a statistical correlation between thimerosal exposure and neurological disorders. During the conference the participants agreed to keep the findings secret. The study was later released in the November 2003 issue of "Pediatrics" and did not show a statistical correlation. "No explanation has been provided for this discrepancy," says Bloch. In May, Cochi told First Coast News it was not relevant to compare an early draft of the study first discussed in 2000, with the polished final report released in 2003.
Finally, although thimerosal is not as common as it once was in pediatricians' offices, Bloch urges Congress to let parents "know that they can request a mercury-free vaccine."
Mercury-free flu shots are readily available, and since the flu vaccine is now recommended for all children 6 months and older, U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, (R) Melbourne, is hoping they soon become the only option. Weldon, a physician himself, is pushing legislation that would ban thimerosal in vaccines completely by 2006, telling First Coast News, "Any doctor who would knowingly inject a baby with a mercury-containing vaccine.. I would consider that malpractice."
As the debate heats up, Pickert waits for his day in court. A causation hearing on behalf of 62 First Coast families with autistic children was scheduled for July of this year. Pickert tells First Coast News that hearing will likely be delayed.
"But if we don't get the result we're seeking in Vaccine Court, we'll sue the major vaccine manufacturers right here in Jacksonville," he says. "Let's be clear. These families are not anti-vaccine. They are simply anti-thimerosal. And for the CDC and the IOM to state that there are no studies showing thimerosal is a problem is just wrong. There are quite a few studies saying just the opposite."
"I fought the asbestos thing for years, and at times it seemed like a lost cause. This feels very similar. It's going to be a long road. But we'll keep fighting."
Created: 6/3/2004 5:18:15 PM
Updated: 6/3/2004 9:22:13 PM
Edited by Melissa Ross, Reporter
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