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DTP or DPT vaccine safety

The Sunday Times

The vanishing victims

Margaret Best followed the London trials. She sat in the courtroom during the second. Her son Kenneth's case would be heard 12 months later, and she needed to be prepared. Stuart-Smith's ruling was undoubtedly a setback. She wondered now whether she could win.

She had been run off her feet preparing to do battle, even flying to America three times. The sister body of Fox's organisation, based in Virginia, had learnt that because the vaccine was an organic product, batches unavoidably varied in strength. They dubbed the strongest "hot lots" and zeroed in on them to launch punitive lawsuits.

Kenneth's first trial ran for 35 days in front of Justice Liam Hamilton, the Irish high court's president, aged 61, a father of three. Some of Margaret's experts came a long way: one from Hamburg, another from Los Angeles. But, although she was gregarious and part of a big family, only her estranged husband corroborated her account of Kenneth's fits. Her chief expert was Peter Behan, 49, a neurology professor from Glasgow University. He said the DTP vaccine could injure in the manner of a virus, possibly through an allergic reaction.

The plaintiff's counsel asked him: "What in your view caused this condition?"

"I should say I met his mother," the professor responded. "I was struck by how decent and honest she was." Later, he summed-up: "The temporal profile, the repeated seizures, are all, to me, virtually textbook examples of what has previously been reported."

Margaret also got help from a London solicitor who supplied a document which showed that Kenneth's vaccine was at least 2.5 times stronger than normal. In 1969, a company microbiologist had released a 100-litre batch - 200,000 doses - that had not been properly tested. It was never established that this would have made any difference, but the child's jab had come from a "hot lot".

The company was in trouble, but the trial's outcome still pivoted on her evidence about the fits and when they occurred. During closing arguments, Wellcome's lawyer insisted that her recall about the timing was wrong, but again did not say that she lied. "Her genuineness is accepted," he submitted.

But the high court president did not agree. "I think it goes further," he said. "I am satisfied: if her account is not accurate she is lying, that there is no grey area, and there is no point in trying to fuzz it."

"I am not trying to fuzz it," the company's barrister protested. "People can convince themselves of the truth of events in retrospect. We see it every day of the week in road traffic accidents - and all sorts of accidents - people engineering themselves into that position and believing it themselves. I don't think your lordship has to find she is lying if you reject her evidence. She may well believe - "

The judge cut him off. "If she is not lying deliberately, the husband is. Both of them would not convince themselves."

Hamilton said he intended to "grasp the nettle," and such exchanges produced 18 months of suspense before he delivered his judgment in January 1991. He said there was "a possibility" that the vaccine could cause brain damage, that the company knew this in 1969 and that it was "negligent in releasing the batch". But when he turned to Kenneth's fits, he said that he accepted the three doctors' written records. "It inevitably follows that I do not accept the evidence of Mr and Mrs Best with regard to the onset of the attacks."

He did not say that the parents were lying, but adopted the company's submission. "I consider that they, and in particular Mrs Best, have been under considerable strain because of the tragic condition of their son," he added, before contradicting his own previous opinion. "And have convinced themselves of the association of his condition with the immunisation."

On the judge's assessment another victim had vanished, but his verdict, rejecting the claim for damages, was not to stand. Seventeen months later, in June 1992, Margaret returned to Dublin to hear three supreme court justices give her victory after an appeal. The doctors' records were circumstantial, they ruled, while Margaret claimed certain recall. There were also flaws in the GP's actions, such as delays in rushing Kenneth to hospital.

But ultimately the appeal turned, once again, on the question of whether a mother could be believed. Margaret gave such a detailed account about the fits, her visits to the doctor and his alleged response, that if it was false, the Supreme Court deduced, then it followed that she could only be lying. But as the company had conceded she was not lying, then, logically, it ruled, her story must be true. "Having regard to the defendants' express disavowal, which they maintained in this court on this appeal, of any suggestion that the Bests were inventing the story which they told concerning these convulsions," the chief justice, Tom Finlay, ruled, "it seems to me extremely difficult to conceive of any form of strain or obsession which could possibly create the detailed account."

*****

I returned to see her towards the end of August, pulling up again at her electric gates and crunching up the drive to the house. We sat that night at the kitchen table, where 21 months previously I had prodded her for background colour. Spurred by her victory, at least six more court cases were pending in Ireland and the government had begun a trawl of medical records in search of more "hot lot" victims. Another trial was due in Australia. And in Britain four new potential test cases had been granted legal aid, with dozens more under review.

Over steak and chips, I remarked on my confusion over where she had phoned the doctor from. She said that in 1969 a lady had lived 500 yards down the hill from her cottage outside Kinsale. "She was the only one that had a telephone within the area," she said. "But on the night in question the nearest telephone was actually down in the village, outside the actual post office. It was a public box."

A few minutes later we got to Kenneth's repeat DTPs after his apparent first fits. "You would need to be very stupid," I suggested, "to be told that this was a consequence of the vaccine and then go back and do it again."

"You wouldn't," she replied. "Because there was nothing wrong with Kenneth: to say Kenneth was still Kenneth at four months and you wouldn't see any difference. You might see what Kenneth was getting were fits. But they would stop after 30 seconds. They might stop after 10 minutes and then Kenneth was grand again." She stressed that she was then only 22. "You can't put an old head on young shoulders."

Finally, we came to the supreme court's argument. I tried to summarise it: that her story was so detailed that either she was telling the truth or she was deliberately lying. But since the company had not accused her of lying, she must be telling the truth. Nobody, I suggested, would stand up in court and accuse her of making things up.

"No, well, they needn't have said that I wasn't either," she responded. "They could have kept their mouths shut, perhaps then, and left the gate open, you know? But they said it: that I wasn't. But they didn't have to say anything. If they'd said nothing and just conducted their defence and didn't open their mouths about whether they thought I was lying, or whether I was telling the truth, or whether I was confused - it didn't matter a damn - if they had said nothing they might have been better off."

Indeed they might, but these were legal technicalities. There was also the human dimension. As we talked, Margaret kept glancing towards a closed-circuit TV screen, then monitoring the electric gates. Kenneth, now aged 29, was out for a drive with Margaret's live-in friend Christy Foley. They would be back at any time.

At 10pm the headlights of a Nissan Maxima blurred the screen. Margaret pressed a button to open the gates. Then Kenneth walked in, picked up some chips and was led off to his annexe room.

He was short, not much more than 5ft in height, with a big, severely balding head. His right hand was thrown back across his shoulder, clutching a clump of tangled wool. It was his greatest passion to blend balls of wool. He also liked the motion of cars, the sounds of music and the splash of bath-time water. He recognised nobody, was doubly incontinent, had never spoken, but sometimes screamed.

As Margaret dealt with him I had a moment for reflection, from the safety of not being a father. What would it have been like to have been in her situation: to have the agony of suspicion and then the horror of knowing there was "something wrong" with your child? Then the hospital visits, the prayers for cures, the disbelief, the anger, the rage. Then comes the question "Why us?" - a question that often leads to divorce. Was it something we did? An accident at birth, or even some error before that? In Ireland, especially, grandparents ransacked history to discover "which side" it came down. It was easy to see why the vaccine and drug companies might be welcome scapegoats for the burden of guilt.

Later would follow the practical questions. Who will look after our child? From childhood to adolescence, to adulthood and beyond. What happens then, when parents are gone?

Moments later I heard banging and scratching at a door. "Is that a dog?"

"No," Margaret said. "That's Kenneth."

*****

DTP or DPT vaccine safety
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This report is copyright, Brian Deer. No portion of this article on the DTP or DPT vaccine controversy of the 1970s and 1980s may be copied, retransmitted, reposted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express permission of the author. Responses, information and other feedback are appreciated