Unspoken Acceptance of Vaccine Additive Raises Furor
by Sandy Kleffman, Contra Costa Times, May 2, 2004
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officials have added the flu vaccine to the routine immunization
schedule for children, but will remain silent about whether
parents should request a mercury-free version of the shot.
Critics blasted last week's decision, particularly in light of
government warnings about other types of mercury exposure.
"There are all these concerns about mercury from these
coal-powered plants and yet they kind of shrug their shoulders
at mercury in the vaccines and frankly, I'm outraged," said Rep.
Dave Weldon, R-Florida, one of the few members of Congress who
also is a physician.
Officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention said their goal is to protect against a serious
illness that kills 36,000 Americans annually, including 143
children during the 2003-04 flu season.
The CDC took no stance on thimerosal, a mercury-based
preservative, because there is no proof it harms children,
"There is a lack of scientific evidence that this really is a
problem from the standpoint of any causal association with
autism or (related) disorders," said Steve Cochi, acting
director of CDC's National Immunization Program.
For years, many parents of autistic children have argued that
vaccines triggered their children's disorder, even though many
scientists dispute that idea.
Several thousand families have filed claims with the Vaccine
Injury Compensation Program, which has yet to make a decision.
Vaccine makers have denied responsibility and insisted that
thimerosal is safe.
In 1999, as a precautionary measure, the American Academy of
Pediatrics and the U.S. Public Health Service urged drug
companies to voluntarily remove thimerosal from children's
Thimerosal, a compound that is 49.6 percent mercury by weight,
has been used as a preservative in some vaccines and other
pharmaceutical products since the 1930s.
Its purpose is to prevent fungal and bacterial contamination in
The recommendation for a voluntary removal came after scientists
with the Food and Drug Administration determined that
6-month-olds who received the full recommended set of
immunizations could accumulate doses of mercury that exceeded
Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for their body
Today, most childhood vaccines are thimerosal-free.
"The last lots of those childhood vaccines that still contained
thimerosal expired a year ago January," Cochi said.
The flu vaccine will be the exception.
On Friday, the CDC recommended that children between the ages of
6 months and 23 months receive annual flu immunizations as part
of the standard schedule.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of young children will get
flu shots this fall.
The influenza vaccine is available with and without thimerosal,
although the thimerosal variety greatly predominates.
The mercury-free version is more expensive, costing roughly $4
more per shot.
Cochi noted that thimerosal is made up of ethyl mercury, a
different form than the methyl mercury that has triggered
widespread government warnings about fish consumption and other
types of exposure.
Scientists have done far more research on the impact of methyl
mercury than ethyl mercury.
"The two chemicals do act very differently, with the methyl
mercury tending to persist in fat tissues and remain in the body
much longer and persist as a potential toxin," Cochi said.
National Institutes of Health studies "have shown that the very
tiny dose of ethyl mercury that young children get in
vaccinations is cleared very quickly by the body and the levels
that are reached in the blood are well below what is considered
to be the EPA threshold for concern," he added.
Others disagree, fearing that some scientists are rushing to
judgment. Rick Rollens, the father of an autistic child and a
cofounder of the M.I.N.D. Institute at UC Davis, said he fears
vaccines may trigger autism in genetically vulnerable children.
Proponents of this theory believe some children do not excrete
mercury as readily as others.
"We don't know, quite frankly, what is the toxic dose of mercury
for the developing brain of newborns and young children, so it's
totally irresponsible to slough this off as saying that a little
bit of mercury is okay," Rollens said. "A little bit of poison
is not okay."
Triggered by the CDC action, Rep. Weldon has introduced a bill
that would require that the child flu vaccine contain no more
than 1 microgram of mercury by Jan. 1, 2005.
His bill would phase out thimerosal in all vaccines, including
those for adults, by 2007.
Supporters note that one study found that autistic children had
lower levels of mercury in their hair than a control group,
which might indicate they retained more and didn't excrete it as
"I'm a conservative," Weldon said. "I'm not a liberal,
left-wing, chicken-little-the-sky-is-falling sort of person.
I've really tried to look at this fairly objectively and let the
science run its course. But I've basically had it. I think we
need a law that says you've got to get this out of vaccines."
In California, Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Woodland Hills, has
introduced a bill that would ban thimerosal-containing vaccines
for children under age 3 and pregnant women as of Jan. 1, 2006.
Her measure, pending in the Assembly Appropriations Committee,
would require makers of many other products to include mercury
content on labels.
Such a move by California could help pressure vaccine
manufacturers to produce greater quantities of thimerosal-free
flu vaccine, she said.
Because of the time required to produce the flu vaccine, Cochi
said, it's too late now for manufacturers to substantially
increase thimerosal-free versions of the vaccine by this fall.
This year, there will be about 6 million to 8 million doses of
the thimerosal-free version available out of 90 million to 100
million doses of flu vaccine nationwide, he said.
The CDC will buy as much as three-fourths of the available
thimerosal-free doses for distribution to programs that immunize
Even if the CDC decided to mandate that all young children
receive thimerosal-free shots this fall, there would not be
adequate supplies, Cochi said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, representing 57,000
physicians, supports the CDC decision not to take a stance on
thimerosal in the flu vaccine.
The debate continues. About 10 states have bills pending that
would ban thimerosal in childhood vaccines.
Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine
Information Center, which promotes safer vaccines, said that
with so little known about the causes of autism and the
potential impacts of ethyl mercury, officials should adopt the
stance of "when in doubt, do no harm."
But Cochi of the CDC said it would be bad policy for state
lawmakers to act.
"I don't think this problem can be solved in the near-term by
legislators," he said.
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