Thimerosal is a preservative that contains mercury and was used for many years as an additive in some routinely administered children’s vaccines.
Fears developed a few years ago that the additive might have been causing dangerously elevated levels of mercury in infants, resulting in neurological impairment and, in some cases, autism.
Studies thus far have neither shown nor ruled out a link between the vaccines and neurological damage in children. But in the summer of 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Public Health Service urged vaccine manufacturers to stop using thimerosal as quickly as possible.
Thus, thimerosal, which was developed by Eli Lilly & Company in the 1920’s and was in widespread use by the 1990’s, is no longer added to vaccines commonly given to children. But a serious controversy continues. Lawsuits have been filed by parents across the country who are convinced that their children suffered severe neurological damage from the mercury in the vaccines. Talking to them can be heartbreaking.
Lyn Redwood, a nurse practitioner and the wife of a physician in suburban Atlanta, spoke to me last week about her 8-year-old son, Will. ”I have a little boy who was completely normal at birth — walking, talking, smiling, meeting all of his developmental landmarks,” she said. ”Then, shortly after he turned 1 year old, he lost his ability to speak, to make eye contact. He started regressing and ultimately was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, which falls into a spectrum of autism disorders.”
Ms. Redwood contends that three infant vaccines administered to her son when he was 2 months old exposed him to levels of mercury that far exceeded all safety guidelines.
At this point we must interrupt our narrative and turn our attention to the federal government’s effort to fight terrorism in the United States.
Last week the Senate approved legislation to establish a Department of Homeland Security and it will soon be signed into law by the president.
Buried in this massive bill, snuck into it in the dark of night by persons unknown (actually, it’s fair to say by Republican persons unknown), was a provision that — incredibly — will protect Eli Lilly and a few other big pharmaceutical outfits from lawsuits by parents who believe their children were harmed by thimerosal.
Now this has nothing to do with homeland security. Nothing. This is not a provision that will in any way protect us from the ferocious evil of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. So why is it there? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the major drug companies have become a gigantic collective cash machine for politicians, and that the vast majority of that cash goes to Republicans.
Or maybe it’s related to the fact that Mitch Daniels, the White House budget director, is a former Eli Lilly big shot. Or the very convenient fact that just last June President Bush appointed Eli Lilly’s chairman, president and C.E.O., Sidney Taurel, to a coveted seat on the president’s Homeland Security Advisory Council.
There’s a real bad smell here. Eli Lilly will benefit greatly as both class-action and individual lawsuits are derailed. But there are no fingerprints in sight. No one will own up to a legislative deed that is both cynical and shameful.
An official spokesman for Eli Lilly, Edward Sagebiel, insists the company knew nothing about it, nothing at all.
While the vote for the Homeland Security Department was overwhelming, even some Republicans were upset by the provision to benefit Lilly and the other drug companies.
Senator John McCain of Arizona characterized the provision as ”among the most inappropriate” in the homeland security legislation. He said: ”This language will primarily benefit large brand-name pharmaceutical companies which produce additives to children’s vaccines — with substantial benefit to one company in particular. It has no bearing whatsoever on domestic security.”
The politicians with their hands out and the fat cats with plenty of green to spread around have carried the day. Nothing is too serious to exploit, not even the defense of the homeland during a time of terror.
Lyn Redwood put together an advocacy group, called Safe Minds, for parents struggling with the thimerosal issue. They’re at a slight disadvantage, wielding a popgun against the nuclear-powered influence of an Eli Lilly.