When vaccines lead to tragedy One misfire in 110,000 is still a lot of damaged children

June 04, 1991|By Kate McKenna | Kate McKenna,State News Service

THOUSANDS of petitions, stacking up in huge boxes at the courts building across from the White House, represent a sad minority among a healthy majority of Americans.

They come from parents, siblings and spouses of the disabled, dysfunctional and deceased. Some are pleas from those who suffered nothing more than a fearsome 48 hours listening to their baby's high-pitched screams. Some are from those who endured a tragedy far worse.

The petitions come from parents such as Charles and Bernice Murphy of Kingsville, whose healthy 5-month-old boy was diagnosed with inexplicable, life-threatening brain swelling after receiving his DPT (diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus) shot. Today, their son, Patrick, can speak a few words, but brain damage and a lifetime of convulsions have left him with the functional abilities of a toddler. He just turned 30 years old.

The petitions also come from families such as William and Jane Thompson of Parkville, whose infant daughter, Laura, seemed to show no ill effects from her routine polio vaccines at 2 and 4 months of age. But at 10 months, Laura stopped eating after she become severely ill with a condition doctors took months to pinpoint: polio. Born with an undiagnosed deficiency in her immune system, Laura never ate again -- and died from complicationsof her illnesses before her third birthday.

The Murphys, the Thompsons and thousands of others are suing the U.S government for millions of dollars in damages for the deaths and injuries they say resulted from the vaccinations this nation requires children to take.

A controversial law the Reagan administration had long opposed and which Congress took years to fund, the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act of 1986 took effect Oct. 1, 1988.

The unique premise behind the bill acknowledged that mandatory vaccinations in the 20th century have virtually wiped out the incidence of such life-threatening epidemics as measles, polio and whooping cough, but at a cost to some innocent victims. The bill's authors decided it was morally incumbent upon society to compensate those who were damaged by a vaccine they were forced to take.

Designed to be a faster and less expensive procedure than a civil suit for resolving such claims, the program focuses on injuries related to the following vaccines: diphtheria, pertussis -- known as whooping cough -- and tetanus (DPT); measles, mumps and rubella, and oral and inactivated polio vaccines.

Of the more than 4,100 claims made so far, most are believed to be connect

See DPT, B3, Col. 1

DPT, From B1 ed to the pertussis bacteria portion within the DPT vaccine. Effects of toxins in the pertussis bacteria can in rare cases produce high fever, convulsions, brain damage and death.

The statistic most frequently used by health officials shows that one in every 110,000 DPT shots given to children results in serious neurological side effects and that one in every 310,000 shots will cause permanent brain damage.

Many experts maintain that no connection exists between the pertussis component and the reactions. They cite evidence that suggests the ratio of children who have bad reactions to the total number of those vaccinated is no more than the natural occurrence of neurological diseases in the general population.

But Bernice Murphy's little boy's reaction was completely unnatural.

"He slept fine in the car going home from the doctor's office, then woke up screaming and didn't stop," she recalled.

Patrick cried day and night. Eventually, doctors told his parents that the infant's brain had swollen and that there was severe damage.

"Then we went to the neurologist, who said, 'Take him home and love him [because] he'll be dead before he's 3 or 4.'" Murphy said. "That's exactly how he put it."

/# But Patrick didn't die. Doctors

credit his mother's tender care with keeping him healthy longer than anyone predicted. Today, he still cannot walk, talk or feed himself and has no control of his bladder or bowel, but Bernice Murphy remains his primary care-giver. She and her husband have two other children.

Now on several types of anti-convulsant medication, Patrick can spend some time at an adult care center, can say a few words, understands "go bye-bye" and similar phrases. But he's never been able to say the word for mother.

As of last month, the government had turned down 273 petitions, awarded 181 claims and paid out $108.4 million. Nearly all of these cases stemmed from injuries that occurred before 1988 -- which are paid under a separate program which had an application deadline of Jan. 31.

The Murphys' claim is pending before the U.S. Claims Court, caught

in the courthouse's huge backlog. The Thompsons' petition, including documentation that Laura's strain of polio could only have come from the government-mandated vaccine, has just been turned down.

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