April 20, 2006
Every flu season pregnant women and infants get deluged with a flurry of warnings to get vaccinated. These advisories come from the National Immunization Program (NIP), which is run by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The warnings are useful, but usually don't say that many vaccines are tainted with thimerosal, a form of mercury that's used as a cheap preservative.
"[M]ercury can be very harmful to the brain and even small amounts can damage a brain that is just starting to grow," states an informational guideline issued by the Hawai'i Department of Health. "That's why young children, unborn and breast-fed babies are at the most risk. Too much mercury may affect a child's behavior and lead to learning problems later in life."
Mercury is a neurotoxin, and it's well known that pregnant women should limit their consumption of many fish because they contain levels of mercury that can harm fetuses. But few advise pregnant women to avoid the flu vaccine.
An easy way to protect pregnant women and children is to pass a law prohibiting the use of mercury in vaccines. Late last year, state legislators tried to do exactly that. Their proposed law, SB 3216, aimed to prohibit the use of mercury containing vaccines throughout the state. But that bill died in the state Senate Health Committee. The reason was simple: committee chairwoman Rosalyn Baker refused to hear it.
Baker represents Maui's 5th District, which stretches from Makena to Kapalua. "We don't need this legislation," she said. "Virtually all vaccines are made without mercury. The mercury [used] is not the kind the FDA warns about. The medical evidence, Department of Health and the pediatrics community do not support this bill."
In fact, there is growing scientific evidence that vaccine mercury is dangerous. It's also more than a mere curiosity that both Baker and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have accepted financial contributions from major vaccine manufacturers.
There has been much debate in the scientific community regarding ethyl mercury, which is used in vaccines as a preservative called thimerosal. Methyl mercury is undeniably toxic—there are strict standards governing exposure limits. Many believe the same restrictions should govern ethyl mercury.
In 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) realized the amount of ethyl mercury infants were getting dosed with through vaccines exceeded the EPA limit for methyl mercury. In fact, during the 1990's American six-month-olds received on average 187.5 micrograms of ethyl mercury through their vaccinations. Federal health officials have conceded that this exceeded the EPA threshold of 0.1 micrograms per kilogram of bodyweight. Compounding the problem is the fact that unborn babies can accumulate mercury in their tissues at levels up to 70 percent higher than their mothers.
"The Influenza vaccine appears to be the sole remaining vaccine given to children in the U.S. on a regular basis that contains thimerosal," concluded a three-year investigation by the Committee on Government Reform into vaccines in 2003. "Two formulations recommended for children 6 months or older continue to contain trace amounts of thimerosal. Thimerosal should be removed from these vaccines. No amount of mercury is appropriate in any childhood vaccine."
The problem continues to this day. In fact, on Feb. 9 of this year, the Honolulu Advertiser reported that one in five women of childbearing age had levels of mercury higher than the EPA's recommended limit and "suggests that Hawai'i's residents may be at even greater risk."
Efforts to control vaccine mercury date back nearly a decade. "My first reaction was simply disbelief, which was the reaction of almost everybody involved in vaccines," wrote Neal Halsey, chairman of the AAP's Committee on Infectious Diseases from 1995 to 1999, in the Nov. 10, 2002 New York Times Magazine. "In most vaccine containers, thimerosal is listed as a mercury derivative, a hundredth of a percent. And what I believed, and what everybody else believed, was that it was truly a trace, a biologically insignificant amount. My honest belief is that if the labels had had the mercury content in micrograms, this would have been uncovered years ago. But the fact is, no one did the calculation."
In July of 1999, Halsey urged the AAP to demand that vaccine manufacturers remove mercury as quickly as possible. They didn't. The CDC has behaved erratically on the issue, despite the fact that the same month Halsey made his recommendation the drug manufacturer SmithKline Beecham offered enough thimerosal-free vaccines to supply the U.S. market. The CDC rejected SmithKline's offer, only to reverse course a year later and ask that all vaccines be thimerosal-free as soon as adequate supplies were available.
That was nearly six years ago. In the meantime, research has piled up suggesting that thimerosal can cause considerable medical problems.
In a 2005 National Institutes of Health (NIH) study, Dr. Thomas Burbacher found that thimerosal is actually more toxic to the brain than methyl mercury. In his study, infant primates dosed with vaccine level thimerosal were compared to those dosed with methyl mercury. Those exposed to thimerosal showed a much higher proportion of mercury in their brains than the methyl mercury infants—an astounding 71 percent compared to just 10 percent.
At Columbia University a research team led by Dr. Mady Hornig in 2004 found that dosing autoimmune-prone infant mice with thimerosal vaccines resulted in a number of bad effects including growth delay, reduced movement, and brain alterations.
Indeed, a disturbing rise in the number of autism cases has even been linked to possible thimerosal exposure (See "Autism and Mercury" for more on this).
The real tragedy seems to be that the CDC just can't get its act together. In 2003, the Committee on Government Reform found that the CDC's failure to ask for mercury-free vaccines in 2000 and 2001 resulted in many children receiving the thimerosal-laced vaccine when alternatives were available. Indeed, a Mar. 1, 2006 Huffington Post article by environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. alleges that the CDC continues to send its top spokesman around the country to testify before state legislatures in hopes of derailing state efforts to ban mercury in vaccines.
One explanation for the CDC's sluggish, if not outright hostile, attitude towards getting thimerosal out of vaccines seems to be nearly complete dominance by the pharmaceutical industry over Washington politics. During the Bush Administration, these firms have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbyists and campaign contributions.
For them, the stakes are high: many of these firms have stockpiled huge inventories of thimerosal-laced vaccines. A CDC ban on them would cost the companies plenty.
A similar paralysis seems to grip the Hawai'i Department of Health. They've ordered mercury-free flu vaccines for children aged three and younger who are covered by state funded health care programs. Yet the DOH rejects state legislation that would require mercury-free immunizations for everyone.
At first glance, the opposition to a vaccine bill by the American Academy of Pediatrics is surprising. After all, AAP's official policy states that, "mercury in all of its forms is toxic to the fetus and children and efforts should be made to reduce exposure to the extent possible to pregnant women and children."
Yet the organization opposes attempts to end mercury use in vaccines. In a Feb. 11, 2006 letter to Representatives Josh Green (D, 6th District) and Dennis Arakaki (D, 30th District), AAPVice President Galen Y.K. Chock, MD wrote that the bill could "Perpetuate false and misleading information that vaccines are not safe," "Potentially result in on-going vaccine shortages," "Lead to increased costs for vaccines," "Add more complexity to our present vaccine delivery system" and "Unnecessarily expose our physicians to civil action and litigation."
Baker said such opposition was critical in her reasoning behind letting SB 3216 die, and many of the issues AAPraises could have merit. Yet the AAP isn't entirely objective where vaccines are concerned.
For many years, the AAP has received millions of dollars in financial support from vaccine manufacturers like Merck, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur. Another opponent to local thimerosal-free vaccination legislation, the Immunization Action Coalition, has accepted money from Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi Pasteur, Chiron and Wyeth Pharma.
Even our own state Senator Roz Baker doesn't blanch when Big Pharma pulls out its checkbook. Since 2004, campaign records show she's received $4,000 from vaccine producer GlaxoSmithKline.
Ironically, while the AAP worries over potential vaccine shortages, Sanofi has said that they can make enough mercury-free vaccine to meet the needs of infants and pregnant women. The increased cost for a mercury-free flu vaccine is approximately $3.30, yet without state legislation mandating such vaccines, private health providers will not cover such expenses and insist on the thimerosal vaccines.
At least there's precedent for action. Several states have successfully banned mercury in their vaccines: Iowa, California, New York, Illinois, Kansas, Delaware, Missouri and most recently Washington. Around the world, Russia banned it 20 years ago. Japan, Great Britain, Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Finland and Norway have also ended thimerosal vaccine use in their countries.
In our nation's capital, federal legislation concerning thimerosal has been limited to covering the interests of the big pharmaceutical companies. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R, Tennessee)—who's expected to run for President in 2008—and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R, Illinois) slipped language into last year's Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, giving immunity to pharmaceutical companies from any claims of vaccine-induced injury. President George W. Bush duly signed the act into law.
But there's still hope for Hawai'i. SB 3216 may be dead, but SB 2133—which also prohibits mercury-laced vaccines—has taken its place. This new bill was recently approved by the Senate Finance Committee and will be heard in conference. What will happen next will depend on people like state Senator Roz Baker.
"Not one constituent has come forward in support of this bill," said Baker. "The time for hearing measures is over. The Senate has taken its position." MTW
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