A growing contingent of parents believes a mercury-based preservative in those vaccines may have done more harm than good.
In 1999, at the request of the Food and Drug Administration, drug companies agreed to begin removing a controversial preservative called thimerosal from vaccines. Some families believe the removal comes too late.
Jackson Bono is a happy, curious 13-year-old challenged by a myriad of medical and developmental problems. Jackson has trouble speaking and focusing and works with a tutor.
"The toll it takes on a family is remarkable," said Scott Bono, Jackson's father.
Like most parents, Scott and Laura Bono had their son vaccinated when he was a baby. They now blame his problems on thimerosal and its main ingredient, mercury.
"Little did we ever suspect that the very immunizations that were to protect him from childhood diseases were poisoning him with mercury," Scott Bono said.
Thimerosal kills harmful bacteria and has been in vaccines for decades.
In the early 1990s, the number of recommended childhood vaccines increased. Over the last decade the national autism rate has risen drastically. In North Carolina, the rate has more than quadrupled, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
Some people see a connection.
If you add up the amount of mercury in baby vaccines with thimerosal, the levels exceed those considered safe for adults by the FDA.
The Bonos said Jackson was a normal, healthy baby until he received a bundle of vaccines when he was 16 months old. They said, soon after, he stopped talking and making eye contact.
Jackson developed autistic tendencies, like spinning uncontrollably. He also suffered severe allergies, seizures and stomach trouble.
"It was a cruel tragedy that happened with our son," Laura Bono said.
Dr. Samuel Katz, chairman emeritus of pediatrics at Duke, is considered one of the foremost authorities on vaccines in the country. He raises doubts that thimerosal ever hurt children.
"Whenever we have a problem, we like to know whose fault is it. Unfortunately, vaccines have become an easy target," he said.
Katz said, "The evidence to support these claims is lacking." However, in 1999, he recommended drug companies take thimerosal out of vaccines.
A 2001 report from the National Institute of Medicine also concluded the evidence does not support the claims. Researchers conceded, "the hypothesis is biologically plausible."
"Given that its mercury and we know that mercury has no beneficial effects, my statement to the FDA was that there's really no reason to use something like thimerosal," said Michael Aschner, a Wake Forest University neurobiologist.
Aschner has studied mercury for 20 years. Research from the
University of Calgary
backs up his work and found mercury can destroy brain cells.
Aschner points out that the ethylmercury in thimerosal is different from the damaging methylmercury found in some fish. He feels the issue clearly deserves much more study.
"If you do it in a dish, ethylmercury does cause significant effects, toxic effects. There's no question about it," Ascher said. "But, again, what you have to be careful of is how you translate what you see in a dish into a human being."
The biggest obstacle parents of special needs children face in making the thimerosal argument is the fact that millions of children, a vast majority, got the same vaccine and never got sick.
"Why is it that all people who smoke don't get cancer? The body reacts differently to different antagonists," Salisbury attorney Bill Graham said.
Graham represents 40 families who believe thimerosal hurt their children. He believes evidence is mounting that federal regulators knew that thimerosal could be harmful long before drug companies felt pressure to remove it from vaccines.
A study sanctioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows infants immunized with thimerosal vaccines were 2.5 times more likely to develop neurological disorders, but it was
Instead, the study continued and the results changed. Graham questions why vaccines were never recalled.
"Do you think that thimerosal vaccines that are potentially harmful could still be out there? They could be. They could be on the shelf right now," Graham said.
"I really think the thimerosal issue has become a feeding frenzy. It's like the sharks with blood in the water," Katz said.
The Bonos said they do not want blood. They want families like theirs to be heard for Jackson's sake, and others like him.
"He's lost his childhood and he may not ever be what he should have been," Laura Bono said.
Parents like the Bonos can file claims with the
National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program
Because of the debate over thimerosal, the federal government has put all the claims on hold until further studies are completed.
There was no recall of thimerosal vaccines, so it is possible some could still be on shelves.
Anyone with concerns should talk to their child's pediatrician and ask for thimerosal-free vaccines. Both sides of the debate stress the importance of immunizing children.
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