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Federal court examining link of autism to vaccine.

Byline: Richard Nangle

Every parent who suspects routine childhood vaccines caused their child's autism has been waiting for this moment. Not to mention a few large drug companies, some influential politicians and a host of health professionals and school districts.

The case of a 12-year-old autistic girl, whose parents believe was poisoned by the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, began yesterday

in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C. About 4,800 families could end up being compensated in the domino effect of a decision that goes their way.

"The entire autism community is watching this case," said Mary Romaniec of Grafton, the mother of an autistic child. "It's the first case to finally hit trial."

There are skeptics. Susan Senator of Brookline, author of the book "Making Peace with Autism," notes that while thousands of families are interested in the case, about 1 million autistic children live in the United States.

"One of my closest friends, the mother of an autistic child, believes in this very strongly," Ms. Senator said of the supposed mercury-autism link. "We definitely have agreed to disagree. I feel for these families. I hope they can get help some way."

Ms. Romaniec said she met the plaintiff's parents by chance in New York City three years ago. Their children were under the care of the same doctor.

"It was tragic what happened to her. Her entire immune system broke down. She had arthritis at the age of 9. She is incapacitated for life," Ms. Romaniec said. "My only concern with this particular case would be is Michelle (Cedillo of Arizona) the benchmark for how severely you have to be injured in order to be compensated for the vaccine?"

To win, the plaintiffs must prove there is a better than even chance of a connection between the vaccines and autism. If the court rules that thimerosal was the cause, the families could receive a settlement from the federal Vaccine Injury Compensation Fund, a trust fund created by Congress to protect vaccine manufacturers from huge lawsuit settlements. Total damages are capped at a little more than $1 million per individual.

Debate over links between mercury and autism is decades old. Among the evidence cited by parents of children with autism, individual doctors and researchers, and many others is that the discovery of autism in American children in 1943 came 12 years after ethyl mercury (thimerosal) was added to the pertussis vaccine. Similarly, autism was not seen in Europe until the 1950s, after thimerosal was added to vaccines used there. Those who believe in the link note that autism is often diagnosed around the same time children are inoculated against infectious diseases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and many medical and dental professional organizations reject any mercury and autism connection. Among the reasons cited is research conducted in Denmark, which banned thimerosal in 1992 yet continues to see rising rates of autism diagnoses.

In 1999 the U.S. government asked vaccine manufacturers to stop using thimerosal at about the same time families began filing claims with the government alleging a thimerosal-autism connection.

"They won't get much financially," Ms. Romaniec said. "It's really a symbol. The money is going to help a little bit. But it's justice for the families that know their child is vaccine-injured."

Ms. Senator acknowledged that pharmaceutical companies could end up paying huge amounts of money if they lose this test case, but she wonders whether the money will do as much good as it could.

Today, the Massachusetts Legislature's Public Health Committee will hold a hearing on a bill to ban mercury in children's vaccines. The legislation is a response to a rise in the number of required childhood injections from about 8 to 22 since 1989, with the incidence of autism climbing from two in 10,000 to one in 166 in that same period.

Contact Richard Nangle by e-mail at
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jun 13, 2007
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