Hidden in the folds of the thickly pork-laden Department of Defense Appropriations bill that slid through Congress just before Christmas and was signed into law a day before New Year’s was a big slab of holiday cheer for the pharmaceutical industry. There were no press releases from congressional offices and no mention in the news – maybe no one wanted to take credit for this latest assault on the 14th amendment.The so-called “Frist provision” – named after the ethically-challenged physician-turned-politician Bill Frist – will immunize Big Pharma from responsibility for vaccine-related injuries. The main rationale for this latest gift to industry at the expense of the public is – you guessed it! – the War on Terror.Our representatives in Congress pled that corporations like Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Wyeth, and Eli Lilly might just have to close up shop if they were forced to take responsibility for injuries caused by their products. These companies hardly need the help. Pharmaceuticals, despite their whining about risk, are some of the most profitable businesses in the country with the median profit margin of the top 10 companies more than five times that of all other industries on the Fortune 500 list.Vaccine-induced injury has been around for as long as vaccines. The most famous case is the 1955 “Cutter incident” in which massive scientific, regulatory and industrial failure led to hundreds of thousands of people being injected with live polio virus. 70,000 people contracted the disease within days of being vaccinated, 200 were permanently paralyzed and 10 died.Two vaccines came into question in the 1990s: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) and hepatitis B. According to research reported in 1998 by British physician Andrew Wakefield and since confirmed by others, the MMR vaccine may cause gastrointestinal problems that can lead to autism. In 1998, France became the first country to stop requiring hepatitis B vaccination for school children, following reports that French children were developing chronic arthritis and symptoms resembling multiple sclerosis following administration of the vaccine. By 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had suspended the hep B vaccine for low-risk newborns.These cases pale in significance compared to the mercury-based vaccine preservative thimerosal. Lilly introduced thimerosal in the 1930s after testing it on a group of patients already suffering from meningococcal meningitis. Doctors injected 22 patients with high levels of thimerosal. Most died within days, from meningitis. Thus, no adverse thimerosal effects were observed.By the 1990s, American children were routinely receiving vaccinations exposing them to up to 87 times the EPA safety limit for adult mercury exposure. Government agencies and the medical establishment argue that there’s no proven connection between high levels of exposure to the mercury in thimerosal and a sixty-fold spike in cases of childhood autism. Others disagree.In metropolitan Chicago, Homefirst Health Services serves several housand children whose families have taken advantage of the religious exemption in Illinois state immunization mandates. According to Dr. Mayer Eisenstein, Homefirst’s medical director, of the 35,000 children served by Homefirst over the past thirty years not a single case of autism has been noted among unvaccinated children. Statistically, there should have been over 200 cases of full-blown autism. Similar results have been noted among the Amish in Pennsylvania. No vaccinations, no autism.American politics is a pay-to-play system. Big Pharma pays big time. Tens of millions of dollars are given to politicians like Senator Frist each and every election cycle to insure that corporate interests trump the rights of mere mortals, including vaccine-injured children and families.The parents of autistic children, who face costs of $3 to $5 million over their child’s lifetime, reasonably seek out the courts as recourse. However, in order for a “vaccine-adverse event” to be compensated in the federally-established Vaccine Court, it must be listed on the federally-established Vaccine Injury Table. Autism is not listed.This is because the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has “failed to find evidence tha thimerosal in vaccines is a causal factor in autism.” The IOM maintains that while such a link is “plausible,” the evidence is insufficient. Recently, the CDC tacked in a different direction, with director Julie Gerberding calling for new studies of the link. But this begs a prickly and potentially very expensive question: Why have the Centers allowed a huge increase in the exposure of American children to thimerosal without first guaranteeing its safety? After all, mercury has long been known to be a neurotoxin and one of the most dangerous substances on the planet.With the president signing the Frist provision into law, the pharmaceutical industry has secured immunity from legal liability for vaccines and drugs administered to fight “epidemics, pandemics, and bioterror agents.” While the presumption is that this law will be applied prospectively, in treating an avian flu outbreak for example, parents of autistic children are justifiably concerned that it will be applied in a blanket fashion. In other words, total immunity from allegations of harm related to vaccines: past, present, and future. Injured persons would be forced to prove “willful intent to harm” – an extraordinarily high standard – in order to be eligible for compensation. And – surprise! – the new law provides no funds for compensation.We are well down the road of sacrificing our once great country to a flaccid and corrupt government in bed with profit-obsessed, amoral corporations. When will the American people finally say “Enough! We demand our country back!”Dan Hamburg is a former member of Congress. He is currently executive director of Voice of the Environment, a Marin-based nonprofit.
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