CDC Won't Warn Parents on Shots with Mercury

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 07 Apr 2004
Time: 01:48:57
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CDC won't warn parents on shots with mercury
By Myron Levin, Los Angeles Times, 4/2/2004

LOS ANGELES -- Hundreds of thousands of infants and toddlers who get flu shots starting this fall could be exposed to a mercury-laced preservative that has been all but eliminated from other pediatric vaccines because of health concerns.

Saying that there is no proof of harm from exposure to the preservative thimerosal, officials with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have confirmed that they won't advise parents and doctors to choose a mercury-free version of the flu vaccine.

This year, flu shots are being added to the government's list of vaccines recommended for all young children. The CDC decision, made despite pleas from parent activist groups and some specialists, seems to be at odds with recent federal warnings about exposure to mercury, a potent neurotoxin and with the government's successful effort to see mercury removed from other childhood vaccines.

The mercury-free flu vaccine will be more expensive, by about $4 per shot, because it is somewhat harder to make in large quantities than the alternative. If the CDC were to warn parents, demand for thimerosal-free shots would rise, possibly squeezing supplies. Some
specialists said there was a greater risk in infants and toddlers failing to be vaccinated against the flu because of a shortage than in their being vaccinated with shots containing mercury.

CDC executives would not discuss their decision but said in a statement that "the available scientific evidence has not shown thimerosal-containing vaccines to be harmful."

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which has a membership of 57,000 physicians, is backing the CDC.

But the agency has come under blistering attack from some parent groups. By not advising parents and physicians, the government is "violating the precautionary principle which reminds doctors that, when in doubt, take an action which minimizes the risk of harm," said Barbara Loe Fisher, cofounder of the National Vaccine Information Center, a parent-led group that promotes safer vaccines.

Representative David Weldon, Republican of Florida, said he planned to introduce a bill to ban thimerosal in childhood vaccines. The CDC refusal to recommend mercury-free shots "is medical malpractice," Weldon said. A physician who has a young son, he said he
would not let the child have a mercury-containing shot.

Preservatives are used by drug companies to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi in their vaccines.

Thimerosal, which is nearly 50 percent ethyl mercury, had long been the preservative of choice.

That changed in 1999, when the US Public Health Service and the pediatrics group called on manufacturers to voluntarily remove thimerosal from pediatric vaccines as a precaution.

In doing so, they acknowledged a major oversight: Under the country's increasingly aggressive policy of childhood immunizations, infants were being repeatedly exposed to mercury in cumulative doses far above Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

Since then, vaccine producers have virtually eliminated thimerosal from regularly scheduled childhood vaccines.

Some parent groups and researchers believe that thimerosal has contributed to a sharp increase in reported rates of autism and other developmental disorders in children. Nearly 4,000 compensation claims have been filed in a special vaccine injury branch of the US Court of Claims on behalf of children with autism-related disorders.

Vaccine makers and many scientists dispute the connection, arguing, among other points, that the exposures are too low and that ethyl mercury is more easily eliminated from the body than methyl mercury -- the type produced by industrial emissions that ends up in fish.

The CDC's neutrality on thimerosal in flu vaccines comes amid a spate of blunt warnings from other federal agencies about reducing methyl mercury levels in infants and toddlers, whose brains and nervous systems are rapidly developing.

Last changed: March 14, 2006