PRIVATE EYE - MMR MEAN TESTING

PRIVATE EYE 17 October - 30 October 2003 
 
 
MMR Number crunching
 
10m
Extra needed to see the parents' legal case through to conclusion
 
10m
Cost of lifetime care for three or four severely autistic or brain-damaged
children
 
20m
Public cost of maintaining the empty Greenwich dome
 
137m
Cost so far of the Bloody Sunday inquiry
 
MMR MEAN TESTING
 
The decision to withdraw legal aid for the 1,000-plus families who believe
their children were damaged by MMR came just as the lawyers for the
families obtained what they believe is their most striking evidence of a
link between the triple jab and the autism and brain damage suffered by the
children.
 
Measles virus has been found in the spinal fluid - and therefore the brain
- in three of the six children at the centre of the huge high court battle
over the safety of the vaccine. It has also been found in 18 children in
the United States who developed autism after receiving MMR.
 
By contrast the virus was found in only one of more than 20 control samples
- taken mainly from spinal taps on children with leukaemia.
 
Just as the results came in, however, the legal services commission
announed its decision - after four and a half years and only six months
before trial - to withdraw funding ''because medical research has yet to
prove a conclusive link''.
 
Jeremy Stuart-Smith, QC for the families, told the high court last week
that the legal aid decision was ''flawed'' and likely to be judicially
reviewed. Clearly frustrated by this setback, he described to Mr Justice
Keith, who was due to hear the case next April, how the families had got
this far ''against all odds''. He accused the defendant drug companies,
with their ''huge'' resources, of laying down obstacles and ''a trail of
litigation treacle'' through which families were forced to wade.
 
Not least, the drug companies' lawyers had even tried to stop the spinal
tests by seeking an injunction banning them as ''invasive and unethical''.
As it was, the families were forced to go to the US for the spinal taps
because every hospital they approached in Britain, whether private of NHS,
refused. The reasons for rejection were, said Mr Stuart-Smith, ''from the
perfectly reasonable to the near incredible''. One hospital which had
provisionally agreed to do the work suddenly withdrew at the 11th hour.
 
The QC descibed how ''with a determination that could only be admired''
Alexander Harris, the firm of solicitors acting for the families, had found
a hospital in the
US that was prepared to help. At very short notice - and
with extreme difficulty - the severely disabled children and their parents
and carers flew to the US where ''every conceivable obstacle'' was put in
their way.
 
As the parents have since revealed, within hours of landing in Michigan the
hospital which had agreed to test the children suddenly announced it was no
longer prepared to. Using contacts involved in US drug litigation, the
families found a private clinic and sympathetic anaesthetist willing to
carry out the tests , just two hours away. But they were nearly thwarted
again when the defendant drug companies made an emergency application to
the high court in London for an injunction.
 
The high court judge declined to grant an injunction; but the tests were
delayed a couple of hours so the pharmaceutical companies could send a
doctor. In the event they sent a lawyer instead.
 
Relieved but exhausted, the parents and children then went to the airport
to catch their flight back to the UK armed with their precious samples,
carefully stored in a special container. It was then that US customs
stepped in and quizzed the party about their cargo. One parent told the Eye
they were even asked about the ethics of invasive tests on their children,
suggesting the officials were well briefed. On their stopover in Amsterdam
they were questioned again by Dutch officials. Coincidence? The parents
don't think so.
 
The families believe their efforts have been vital. As Mr Stuart-Smith said
last week: ''The contrast between three positive results for measles from
the six lead cases, the real candidates for proving that MMR causation
exists, and one positive of the leukemic patients, is striking.''

 
The results of course need more investigation. For a start, the drug
companies contest the ''positive'' findings (although they are using
different testing techniques, and sensitivity to measles virus is very
variable). But neither that crucial investigation - nor any other work to
settle the case one way or another - is going to go ahead without legal
aid. The drug companies and government are clearly not going to do it. The
case has cost 15m so far and could be concluded for another 10m (see panel).
 
Mr Justice Keith, who was due to hear the case in April, has said on
several occasions that the case is important not only for the children
involved but the wider public. For it to continue, the families are now in
the ludicrous position of having to go cap in hand to the legal services
commission to get funding for more lawyers to fight a costly judicial
review of the commission's decision to withdraw legal aid in the first place.