PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ A coalition of law firms went to court across the nation Tuesday, trying to force the pharmaceutical industry to study whether vaccines containing a trace of mercury cause autism and other brain damage in young children.
The lawsuits were filed as class actions and led by an Oregon woman who says her 3-year-old son, William, became autistic after getting vaccinations containing mercury in a preservative, thimerosal.
``We had a happy, healthy little boy until that last set of shots,'' Tory Mead said. ``It's been devastating. Our lives have been shattered.''
Michael Williams, the lead attorney, said drug companies did not tell doctors how much mercury was contained in the vaccines until Congress ordered the Food and Drug Administration to find out in 1997.
``When they added it up, they were shocked to find out it was way above the safe level for an adult, let alone babies or very young children,'' Williams said.
He said thimerosal was used simply as a way to reduce the cost of the vaccine. It was needed to preserve larger bottles that would be used repeatedly. If the drug companies had offered the vaccine in small, disposable vials for individual use, no preservative would have been needed, Williams said.
Today, few vaccines given to children in the United States contain thimerosal. The suit seeks to make sure any remaining stocks are removed.
The law firm representing Mead formed a coalition of more than 35 law firms across the country representing families in at least 25 states. The suits' immediate goal is getting the industry to study whether the mercury caused the brain problems; damages could be sought if such a link is established.
Spokesmen for the firms said the lawsuits were being filed Tuesday in nine states _ California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia. Suits already have been filed in Oregon and Massachusetts.
The lawsuits were announced the day after the National Academy of Sciences released a report saying researchers still are unable to determine if there is a link between thimerosal and disorders in children.
But the report concluded that ``the effort to remove thimerosal from vaccines was a prudent measure in support of the public health goal to reduce the mercury exposure of infants and children as much as possible.''
In July 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics joined the U.S. Public Health Service to warn that vaccines containing thimerosal should be removed as soon as possible.
The defendants in the lawsuits include Aventis Pasteur Inc.; Pasteur Merieux Connaught; Pfizer Inc., a subsidiary of Warner-Lambert; GlaxoSmithKline; Merck & Co.; Abbott Laboratories; American Home Products; Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories; Lederle Laboratories; Baxter International Inc., Eli Lilly & Co.; Integra Chemical Co.; Sigma Chemical Co.; and Aldrich Chemical Co. Three doctors, including one who treated Mead's son, also were named as defendants.
A spokeswoman for Merck had no comment. Spokeswomen for Abbott and for Baxter International said the companies acquired subsidiaries that made vaccines, and had little involvement with its manufacture.
Calls to other defendants were not immediately returned.