This story appeared on Page A1 of The Standard-Times on January 4, 2003.
Family blames vaccine additive for son's autism
Homeland Security rules hamper lawsuit
By SAM HORNBLOWER, Standard-Times correspondent
TARA BRICKING/The Associated Press
Nicole Bernier is furious with the Homeland Security provisions that
undermine her suit against the pharmacy companies. She is fighting on
behalf of her son Jevyn Neves, 6, who is autistic. Ms. Bernier is part
of a class-action lawsuit alleging that the mercury-based additive
Thimerosal, which extends the shelf life of vaccines, caused Jevyn's
Until he was about 15 months old, Jevyn Neves was hitting all his
developmental milestones. Then he began to regress. His speech vanished.
After perplexing doctors for more than a year, he was diagnosed with
"He did not play with me like other kids did with their mom," said his
25-year-old mother, Nicole Bernier, a New Bedford native.
Ms. Bernier believes that her 6-year-old son's condition was caused by
a series of DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) and MMR (measles,
mumps and rubella) vaccinations Jevyn received during that critical
early period of his life.
She and her husband, Antonio Neves, are plaintiffs in a class action
lawsuit against Eli Lilly and other pharmaceutical companies who
manufactured the mercury-based additive called Thimerosal, used to give
these vaccines a longer shelf life.
With Republican Sen. Bill Frist succeeding Trent Lott as Senate
majority leader and a recently passed Homeland Security bill inoculating
vaccine manufacturers from paying hefty damages, the prospects are
dimming for the class action.
"(Sen. Frist) is our public enemy number one," said Mark Blaxill of
Safeminds, a parent advocacy group in the thick of the Thimerosal
controversy. "It's frightening. He is in the forefront of the movement
to deprive families of their due process, the prime mover behind
complete immunity provisions for Eli Lilly."
Sen. Frist defended the amendment to the Homeland Security bill on the
floor of the Senate last November. He said he fears that without the
added legal protections, there will be a chilling effect on vaccine
manufacturer's incentive to fight bioterrorism. "The threat of lawsuits
mustn't be a barrier to protecting the American people," said Frist
before the bill was passed.
Frist said the vaccine injury compensation program, a special vaccine
court that caps the payout to families harmed by vaccines, provides
The families in the class action suit are fighting a statute of
limitations specification, which bars compensation three years from the
onset of signs and symptoms. "You have a class of individuals who will
go uncompensated," said attorney John Kim of Gallagaher, Lewis, Downey
and Kim, of Houston, Texas, one of the two law firms appointed to handle
Drug manufacturing giant Eli Lilly developed Thimerosal in the 1930s
and sold it for 40 years. It was used as a preservative in a number of
applications other than with vaccines, such as in cosmetics and eye drops.
"It had been considered a medically safe project," said Dr. Ann Bajart
at the Ophthalmic Consultants of Boston, "until we realized that over
time, it caused inflammatory conjunctivitis, a reddening of the eyes.
The preservative was causing an allergic response." Mercury-based
products would be taken off the market for topical applications in 1985.
Pharmaceutical companies continued to manufacture childhood vaccines
with Thimerosal up until a few years ago, when a 1997 report on mercury
was submitted to Congress. In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics
demanded that childhood vaccines stop being produced with the chemical
preservative. Three years later, many of these vaccines are still on the
The amount of Thimerosal in any given vaccine shot was too small to be
of any significance 30 years ago when a child received only a few
vaccines. Today, the federally mandated vaccine program will have a
child injected with anywhere between 25 and 30 shots.
And as autism rates skyrocket, parents are raising concerns of possible
links between autism and vaccinations. Republican congressman Dan Burton
from Indiana has an autistic grandson.
"I am personally convinced that there is a link," he said on C-SPAN
last month. "Christian received nine shots in one day. Seven of them
contained mercury. And two days later he became autistic, he started
running around and banging his head against the wall. Severe
constipation and diarrhea. Lost his ability to speak well."
Scientists are confounded. "It appears to be a dramatic increase (in
autism)," said Harvard pediatric neurologist Dr. Martha Herbert. Studies
indicate a spike of anywhere between 283 and 400 percent in the past 10
to 15 years.
Dr. Herbert is on the forefront of research on autism. She believes
that certain children are more vulnerable to "environmental insults," or
changes to their brains and bodies. These children are more susceptible
to becoming autistic through environmental agents.
But the question of a connection between Thimerosal and autism has not
yet been solved definitively. "We just don't really know," she said from
her lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. "There is a lot of data
suggesting that it does cause problems. And there are a lot of studies
that should be done that have trouble being funded."
Pam Ferro, a registered nurse at Hopewell Associates in Mattapoisett,
tests and treats children for autism. "Some parents can tell you to the
day. It was like a switch."
She is convinced that there is a link between Thimerosal and autism.
She explained that there is no good test for mercury. Unlike lead, it
does not stay in the blood stream. "But one of the tests is a hair
analysis. Some of the autistic children were found to have lower levels
of mercury (in their hair) than normal children."
She believes this suggests that some kids do not have the ability to
expel the toxic substance from their bodies. "Some kids are able to
detox mercury and others cannot," she claims.
Dr. Herbert is not surprised that the Food and Drug Administration, the
Center for Disease Control and the drug companies have chosen not to
recall the vaccines. "It would be an admission of guilt more than
Eli Lilly spokesman Edward Sagebiel insists that there is "no
scientifically credible causal link between Thimerosal and autism."
Mr. Sagebiel fears that trial lawyers attempting to cash in on the
families of autistic children ultimately harm science. "We are seeing
our vaccine industry reduced to absolutely nothing," he lamented. "It is
important that (pharmaceutical companies) are not weighing potential
liabilities as they undergo the development to find new vaccines."
And while Dr. Herbert might agree with him, she believes that the
reason for this is more a function of inadequate study than hard proof.
A lot of the recent studies on the subject were either "poorly
designed" or had "a long list of conflicts of interest." These are the
symptoms of a tragic and disturbing trend that she calls "Epidemic
Denial," the title of her recently published paper.
"Why is it that we don't fully entertain the (autism-Thimerosal)
hypothesis?" she asks. "Because it is too painful. They don't want to
believe that we could make mistakes like this."
The scientists, government officials and businessmen involved are very
proud of the young lives they save through the vaccine program. "These
people really want vaccines to be a good thing for children," said Dr.
She is suggesting an endemic intellectual dishonesty in the scientific
studies and public relations spheres pertaining to vaccines. "This casts
a pall over all of science," she said. "It puts a bias on what you are
allowed and not allowed to think about."
"I want to protect the pharmaceutical companies as much as possible,"
Rep. Burton said last month on C-SPAN.
"We need that research. We need to fight the war on terrorism. But what
do you do about these thousands and thousands of children who have been
damaged for life?"
Meanwhile, Nicole Bernier acknowledges how onerous the liabilities
might be if companies such as Eli Lilly were held liable. "But it will
cost our government a whole lot more to educate (these autistic
children)," she says. "Taxpayers are paying to support corporate America."