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Miami lawyer Louis Robles, who got involved on the ground floor in mass tort litigation over asbestos, fen-phen, Rezulin and Norplant, thinks he’s found the next big thing: lawsuits brought on behalf of autistic children who received mercury-containing vaccines. Robles is one of hundreds of plaintiffs’ lawyers around the country who are filing or about to file negligence lawsuits against companies that manufactured or distributed vaccines containing thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative that until the past few years was used in many pediatric vaccines. It is still used in some adult vaccines. Robles is part of a network of some 25 lawyers around the country who have joined forces and are handling thousands of clients; a competing cabal of lawyers are using another strategy. He says he has spent the last two years gearing up for the mercury lawsuits, assigning an associate, Roberto Villasante, to the issue full time, studying up, interviewing experts and “getting the science down pat.” In September, he filed his first vaccine lawsuit on behalf of an autistic child in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. The lawsuit was filed against dozens of defendants that may have manufactured or distributed thimerosal, including such major pharmaceutical companies as Merck & Co., GlaxoSmithKline, and Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories. Fifteen law firms, both local and national, are representing the defendants. Robles’ case was moved to federal district court, then remanded back to the circuit court by U.S. District Judge Donald Graham of the Southern District of Florida. Discovery is ongoing, and Robles and Villasante have signed up a host of expert witnesses. No trial date has been set. While Robles has advertised on daytime television, in the National Enquirer and on his Internet site for clients in other types of cases, he says he isn’t scouting for mercury clients. “I don’t have to,” says the attorney, who heads the Robles Law Center. “There are thousands of them. This is definitely the next big thing.” A SECOND ASSAULT Miami lawyer James Ferraro, who has handled 5,000 asbestos cases around the country, is part of another group of lawyers gearing up to bring mass tort suits against vaccine makers. Ferraro filed his first lawsuit March 29 in Broward Circuit Court on behalf of 5-year-old Justin Edoo and his parents, Mohamed and Juliet Edoo of Pembroke Pines, Fla. Since the age of 2 — about six months after he had his last vaccination — Edoo has exhibited the classic symptoms of autism, the lawsuit alleges, including lack of facial expression, staring spells, mood swings, repetitive behaviors and irrational fears. He even stopped speaking for five months. The Edoos’ suit also names several vaccine manufacturers, including American Home Products and Wyeth-Ayerst; Ferraro is not yet sure which company made the vaccines administered to Justin Edoo. He also named the pediatrician who administered vaccines to Justin in his infancy, Dr. Federico Martinez of Pembroke Pines. Ferraro’s legal theories against the drug companies are strict liability, breach of implied warranty, and negligence in the manufacture, marketing and/or sale of mercury-containing products. In addition, Ferraro named Florida Power & Light Co., which he alleges exacerbated the boy’s medical problems by releasing mercury-containing emissions into the air from its Port Everglades power plant from the burning of fossil fuels. Dr. Martinez said he wasn’t aware of Ferraro’s suit, and that he wasn’t worried because he followed pediatric guidelines in administering the vaccines. “We do what is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and there have been a lot of lives saved by vaccines,” he said. FPL declined to comment, as did Wyeth-Ayerst. All defendants except Martinez were sued for loss of support and services, which translates into loss of companionship, medical expenses and negligent infliction of emotional distress. All defendants were sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress. IN USE SINCE 1930s Plaintiffs’ lawyers and parents involved in this litigation claim that mercury in the vaccines causes autism — even though so far no peer-reviewed scientific study has found such a link. The lawsuits are attempting to hold vaccine manufacturers liable for allegedly exposing as many as 30 million children to the mercury-laden vaccines. Since the 1930s, manufacturers of most vaccines have used thimerosal, a common preservative that contains mercury, to prevent bacterial contamination. But the practice became more common in the last 15 years as pharmaceutical companies began to produce more multidose vials to cut costs. And children began receiving more immunization shots — as many as 30 — as vaccines for more diseases became available. Thimerosal was used in three vaccines: DTP (diptheria, tetanus, pertussis); HIB, haemophilus B, which protects against acute respiratory infection, conjunctivitis and meningitis; and hepatitis B. In the last few years, some parents whose babies had been developing normally but suddenly exhibited signs of autism alleged that the vaccines were the culprit. They were backed by some doctors, since the symptoms of mercury poisoning are similar to autism. The first official concern about mercury in pediatric vaccines was raised in 1999, when the Food and Drug Administration issued a report stating that “infants who received thimerosal-containing vaccines at several visits may be exposed to more mercury than recommended by federal guidelines for total mercury exposure.” One month later, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a notice to its members stating a preference for thimerosal-free vaccines. But vaccine manufacturers and many scientists insist there’s no evidence that thimerosal causes autism. Thus far, studies by both the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta failed to find any causal relationship between thimerosal use and the disease. Still, in what they called a precautionary measure, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Public Health Service and the CDCP called on vaccine manufacturers to stop using the preservative in child vaccines. The industry voluntarily phased out use of thimerosal between 1999 and last year, although it’s still used in flu shots for adults and pregnant women and is in some over-the-counter products, such as nasal spray. The thimerosal debate is the latest in a long line of attacks against childhood vaccinations, which are mandatory for school attendance. Some maverick doctors and consumer groups have argued that parents should be free to refuse the vaccinations because children, in rare instances, can suffer severe, even fatal, adverse reactions. But public health experts, citing compelling international evidence, counter that without mandatory immunizations for diseases such as whooping cough, far more children would die or suffer serious injury. The thimerosal issue seems to be gaining steam politically. Congress held four hearings on the topic earlier this month. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., whose grandson has autism, called the hearings. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have quickly geared up for vaccine lawsuits, setting up war chests, sharing information, interviewing and hiring expert witnesses and advertising for prospective clients. One popular witness is Dr. Stephanie Cave, a Baton Rouge, La., pediatrician who has written a book about the dangers of vaccines. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed around the country. Ferraro and about 35 plaintiff firms have formed the Mercury Vaccine Alliance, which has been filing individual and class action lawsuits in several states, including Oregon and Washington. Waters & Krause of Dallas started the group and filed one of the first thimerosal lawsuits in the country last year in Texas. That case is scheduled for trial next year. Unlike Robles, Ferraro isn’t convinced that these vaccine cases will match asbestos litigation as a big litigation area, even though he has 10 clients signed up and says he’s getting calls from prospective clients every day. “I wouldn’t compare it to asbestos,” Ferraro says. “The amount of exposure is smaller. Still, you’re talking about millions of dollars per case.”

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