For the first year of his life, Yates Hazelhurst was a normal boy.

But then his parents took him to the doctor's office for a series of routine vaccinations, and shortly thereafter Yates began changing into something else altogether.

First, Angela Hazelhurst noticed that her son was growing oddly detached from her. Soon the boy began acting strangely - uncontrolled and wild. Then his speech regressed; his small vocabulary receding. He began flapping his hands and grew fascinated with spinning wheels.

The symptoms were unmistakable. Yates Hazelhurst was autistic.

On Oct. 15, the Hazelhursts' lawyer, Curtis R. Webb of Twin Falls, Idaho, will take their case to a Charlotte, N.C. courtroom in an effort to convince a special master the boy's condition was caused by the vaccines that were administered to him when he was a year old.

"Autism is a very complicated disease," Webb said. "It has a genetic predisposition, but we believe it requires environmental factors to push a child over the edge. "

Webb will argue that the specific environmental factor here is either thimerosal, a mercury-containing organic compound used as a preservative in several vaccines, the MMR (Measles Mumps Rubella) vaccine or both.

He will make this argument in the second of three test cases scheduled this year before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which has set out to provide some answers about vaccines' possible culpability in a public-health problem of large and perplexing proportions.

The court operates the Vaccination Program - created in 1986 to compensate families of children injured by vaccinations and better known as the Vaccine Court - and its special masters have created an "Omnibus Autism Proceeding" to try to sort out the facts.

According to the Autism Society of America, about 1.5 million Americans and their families are affected by the condition, but nobody knows what's causing it.

Generally, autism is believed to be a product of genes and environment. Many theories have arisen, but none have been proven. One contention is that vaccinations may play a role, but several studies to date have failed to show that such a relationship exists.

Nevertheless, some 5,000 families and their lawyers aren't convinced. They are seeking compensation in the Vaccine Court, and many of them point to the government's own acknowledgment of the risks from vaccines containing thimerosal.

In 1999, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control identified mercury-containing vaccine preservatives as a risk, and the next year pharmaceutical companies began phasing out their use.

"It was like a product recall," said Kevin P. Conway, a partner in the Boston firm of Conway, Homer & Chin-Caplan, which represented the plaintiff in the first test case in June. "A lot of attorneys began to aggressively seek cases where autistic children had received a lot of mercury. "

Striving to make scientific link

The lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the Vaccine Court believe they have found the causal link.

"There was mercury in those vaccines," Conway said. "Mercury is the most toxic metal known to man. It should never have been in those vaccines. "

He and two colleagues represented Michelle Cedillo, a Yuma, Ariz. girl who developed autistic symptoms when she was 17 months old. Like Yates Hazelhurst, Cedillo became detached, her vocabulary declined and she grew fascinated with repetitive motion.

The three test cases chosen by the special masters to be heard this year were selected to allow both mercury-containing vaccines collectively and the MMR vaccine in particular to be considered as possible causes of autism.

In the Cedillo case, Conway said, "Our combination theory was that the mercury-containing vaccines damaged her immune system, and that her damaged immune system was unable to clear the measles virus when she was given the MMR vaccine at the age of 15 months. "

Tom Powers, the coordinating lawyer for the plaintiffs' steering committee, said the crux of their argument is that autism escalated in the 1990s due to a big increase in the number of vaccinations that children receive.

"In the '80s, children might receive half a dozen thimerosal-containing vaccines in their first two years of life," he said, "but by the early '90s more shots were added [and] they were given in a shorter period of time. "

As a result, he said, 18-month-olds were receiving many times more mercury via immunizations than ever before.

"People were just adding shots and adding shots without paying attention to the fact that they were adding these preservatives to the schedule also," he said.

In the Hazelhurst case, Webb said, "our position is that both mercury and the measles virus are known to cause neurological disorders, and we know that they do it in a variety of forms. We believe that in Yates' case, we're seeing another one of those forms. "

Heavy stakes

Critics say that the vaccination claims are really based on a coincidence: the first symptoms of autism occur early in life, at the same time when children are receiving vaccinations.

They warn that a victory for the plaintiffs in the Vaccine Court could bankrupt the program - which is funded by pharmaceutical companies via surcharges on vaccinations. They also contend that it would discourage parents from vaccinating their children.

But the plaintiffs say that Congress' intent in creating the Vaccine Court wasn't to protect the integrity of the vaccines.

According to Conway, "Congress's goal was to stop lawsuits and compensate people who were likely injured by vaccines. "

The plaintiffs note that they face a slightly different standard in Vaccine Court. Decisions are determined by a preponderance of evidence; but unlike civil cases, petitioners don't need to show fault - only harm.

The Vaccination Program is administered jointly by the Court of Federal Claims, the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services. Claims are brought against HHS, which is represented by attorneys at the Department of Justice.

The Justice Department attorneys who tried the Cedillo case did not return calls requesting comment, but the transcript of the hearing is available on the court's website (

In the transcript, government attorney Vincent J. Matanoski takes the position that the plaintiffs' evidence did not meet the Daubert test.

"[T]he petitioners' case does not rest on good science," he said. "It rests on junk science. It rests on the science that should be left outside the courtroom door. "

Decisions expected soon

Three special masters are hearing the initial test cases and each will write a separate opinion. The first holding, issued by Judge George L. Hastings, Jr., is expected this winter. If he finds in favor of the plaintiffs, a second hearing will be held on damages.

Powers said that depending on the language of the decision, there may be issues for appeal at the same time the second round of hearings, focusing solely on mercury, starts next year.

"It will be two years before the appellate process is exhausted," said Powers, who is a partner in the Portland, Ore. firm of Williams Love O'Leary & Powers and the lead attorney in the third test case.

If the special masters determine that there is a link between vaccinations and autism, they likely will specify a variety of criteria that future plaintiffs must meet to receive compensation, Webb said.

These criteria could include proof of laboratory testing and evidence of specific behaviors within a short time period after vaccination.

But the plaintiffs' lawyers say that even if the special masters find that there is no connection, that won't necessarily halt future litigation. Parties who lose in the Vaccine Court are free to pursue their cases in civil courts.

"It's certainly possible that the special masters will deny compensation in all the test cases and no one will be compensated," Webb said. "Then the law firms that have thimerosal-only cases will sue the people who made the vaccines.

"You didn't persuade the special masters, [but] you could still persuade juries and judges that the evidence meets the standard of reliability in products liability cases," he said.

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