Who Took the Mercury Out of Vaccines?

jill stein vaccines

Jill Stein, a med­ical doc­tor who is run­ning for Pres­i­dent on the Green Par­ty tick­et, has claimed that the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal indus­try has a cor­rupt­ing influ­ence on the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion (FDA). She has also claimed that she was part of a pub­lic health move­ment that led to the removal of mer­cury from child­hood vac­cines. In real­i­ty, we have no evi­dence that the mer­cury in child­hood vac­cines was caus­ing any harm. Nor was any grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion, oth­er than the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pedi­atrics, involved in the deci­sion to stop using a mer­cury com­pound called thimeros­al as a preser­v­a­tive in vac­cines. (Stein is an internist, not a pedi­a­tri­cian.) The deci­sion to make child­hood vac­ci­na­tions mer­cury-free was made by the FDA and the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion (CDC). Promi­nent anti­vac­ci­na­tion activists start­ed speak­ing out about mer­cury in vac­cines only after the vac­cines became mer­cury-free.

It is dis­turb­ing that Repub­li­can and Green Par­ty Pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls, includ­ing some med­ical doc­tors, have been using the talk­ing points of the anti­vac­ci­na­tion move­ment. What’s worse is that any med­ical doc­tor, and espe­cial­ly any med­ical doc­tor who wants to be chief exec­u­tive of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, does not seem to know how the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment works to pro­tect pub­lic health.

Mul­ti­dose con­tain­ers of most vac­cines must con­tain a preser­v­a­tive to keep bac­te­ria like MRSA from grow­ing in the vac­cine.

Many lay­men were hor­ri­fied to hear that a mer­cury com­pound was ever being used as an ingre­di­ent in child­hood vac­cines. Yet that mer­cury com­pound is a pow­er­ful preser­v­a­tive that was being used to solve a seri­ous safe­ty prob­lem. This prob­lem became obvi­ous in 1928, in a dis­as­ter called the Bund­aberg Tragedy. A bot­tle of diph­the­ria vac­cine in a doctor’s office in Bund­aberg, Queens­land, Aus­tralia, became con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed with a bac­teri­um called gold­en staph (Staphy­lo­coc­cus aureus). The bac­teri­um was prob­a­bly car­ried into the bot­tle by the nee­dle that was used to draw out one of the first dos­es from the bot­tle. Then, the bac­te­ria grew inside the bot­tle as it sat on a shelf between dos­es. Twelve of the chil­dren who received vac­cine from this con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed bot­tle died. Five oth­ers became seri­ous­ly ill but recov­ered. To pre­vent a sim­i­lar tragedy from hap­pen­ing in the Unit­ed States, the US Code of Fed­er­al Reg­u­la­tions (21CFR610.15) requires vac­cine mak­ers to put a preser­v­a­tive in mul­ti­ple-dose con­tain­ers of prac­ti­cal­ly all vac­cines. Sin­gle-dose con­tain­ers can be preser­v­a­tive-free but are more expen­sive.

The reg­u­la­tion does not spec­i­fy which preser­v­a­tives must be used. How­ev­er, it does say that the preser­v­a­tive must be “suf­fi­cient­ly non­tox­ic so that the amount present in the rec­om­mend­ed dose of the prod­uct will not be tox­ic to the recip­i­ent.” Also, the preser­v­a­tive must not inter­fere with the poten­cy of the vac­cine. Thimeros­al has been used since the 1930s as a preser­v­a­tive in vac­cines because it was the most effec­tive option, it did not inter­fere with the poten­cy of the vac­cine, and it was well tol­er­at­ed. Thimeros­al has also been used as a preser­v­a­tive in con­tact lens solu­tions. Even today, despite an exten­sive research effort, we have no evi­dence that the use of thimeros­al in vac­cines has caused any health prob­lems.

The per­son who raised the ques­tion of the mer­cury con­tent of med­i­cines (not specif­i­cal­ly vac­cines) was Frank Pal­lone, a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gress­man from New Jer­sey. In 1997, he intro­duced an amend­ment to the FDA’s reau­tho­riza­tion bill. This amend­ment gave FDA two years to com­pile a list of all med­i­c­i­nal prod­ucts that con­tain mer­cury com­pounds as ingre­di­ents. The FDA had to ana­lyze what kind of mer­cury com­pound was in each prod­uct, and how much of each mer­cury com­pound the prod­uct con­tains. In response to this Con­gres­sion­al man­date, the FDA revis­it­ed the ques­tion of how much expo­sure chil­dren were get­ting to thimeros­al through their vac­ci­na­tions.

Because of the intro­duc­tion of some new vac­cines, the amount of thimeros­al that chil­dren were receiv­ing had gone up. In 1999, sci­en­tists at the FDA cal­cu­lat­ed that the rec­om­mend­ed vac­cines would deliv­er a total of 187.5 micro­grams of mer­cury. (A micro­gram is a mil­lionth of a gram.) How­ev­er, there was no reli­able way to judge whether this amount of mer­cury expo­sure is a prob­lem. In the human body, thimeros­al is bro­ken down into eth­yl­mer­cury, but the fed­er­al guide­lines on mer­cury tox­i­c­i­ty were based on methylmer­cury. To be on the safe side, the sci­en­tists assumed that eth­yl­mer­cury would be just as dan­ger­ous as methylmer­cury. (We now know that it is not, because it is quick­ly elim­i­nat­ed through the kid­neys.) So they sug­gest­ed that steps be tak­en to reduce thimeros­al expo­sure. Back in 1999, we had no evi­dence that the thimeros­al in vac­cines was caus­ing prob­lems. By now, we have evi­dence that it was not caus­ing any of the health prob­lems that were inves­ti­gat­ed. How­ev­er, it did become a seri­ous pub­lic rela­tions prob­lem.

The FDA and the CDC take vac­cine safe­ty seri­ous­ly. As a result, the rec­om­mend­ed vac­cines are amaz­ing­ly safe. Yet there is one thing that we can do to improve safe­ty still fur­ther, while restor­ing pub­lic trust in the pub­lic health author­i­ties. We must focus on dri­ving dis­eases like polio, measles, and rubel­la into extinc­tion through vac­ci­na­tion. Once a dis­ease is extinct, every­one is pro­tect­ed against it, for­ev­er. As a result, chil­dren do not need to be exposed to even the min­i­mal risks, and the dis­com­fort, of the vac­ci­na­tion. Instant­ly, the sales of the vac­cine drop to zero. By work­ing to erad­i­cate a vac­cine-pre­ventable dis­ease, we pub­lic health activists make it crys­tal clear that our goal is pub­lic health, not pri­vate prof­it.

Measles Attacks the Immune System!

Like HIV, measles attacks the immune systemA measles virus infec­tion starts off as a res­pi­ra­to­ry infec­tion. Thus, it starts off look­ing and feel­ing like a com­mon cold. But then it takes a dan­ger­ous turn: it infects the immune sys­tem. Measles can cause long-last­ing dam­age to the immune sys­tem. Recent stud­ies have shown that a case of measles can increase a child’s risk of death from oth­er infec­tions for more than 2 years!

Measles is not the only viral infec­tion that is known to pro­duce long-term sup­pres­sion of the immune sys­tem. Anoth­er exam­ple is the human immun­od­e­fi­cien­cy virus (HIV), which is the cause of acquired immun­od­e­fi­cien­cy syn­drome (AIDS). How­ev­er, HIV and the measles virus attack dif­fer­ent kinds of white blood cells, which are the work­hors­es of the immune sys­tem.

HIV attacks the T4 lym­pho­cytes, which are often called T‑helper cells. T‑helper cells help the oth­er cells of the immune sys­tem rec­og­nize infec­tions and tumor cells. After an HIV-infect­ed person’s T4 cell count drops to dan­ger­ous­ly low lev­els, his or her immune sys­tem is less able to fight many infec­tions and some can­cers (such as Kaposi’s sar­co­ma). Thus, the weak­en­ing of the immune sys­tem gives germs and can­cer cells an oppor­tu­ni­ty to sur­vive and thrive. The result­ing dis­eases are called oppor­tunis­tic.

Peo­ple who are infect­ed by HIV will remain infect­ed for the rest of their lives. In con­trast, most peo­ple who catch the measles will elim­i­nate the measles virus from their body after only a few weeks. Yet the measles infec­tion can cause long-last­ing effects on the immune sys­tem because it wipes out the immune sys­tem’s mem­o­ry. Measles virus kills the B mem­o­ry cells, which are the white blood cells that are sup­posed to remem­ber the germs that the body has suc­cess­ful­ly fought in the past. After the B mem­o­ry cells are killed off, the immune sys­tem must relearn much of what it had already learned about dan­ger­ous germs. In the mean­time, the per­son remains at risk for oppor­tunis­tic infec­tions.

HIV is bad, and so is measles. Hav­ing HIV and measles at the same time is par­tic­u­lar­ly bad. The death rate from measles is par­tic­u­lar­ly high in peo­ple who have any oth­er form of immune sup­pres­sion. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, peo­ple who have a sup­pressed immune sys­tem can­not be vac­ci­nat­ed against measles, because the measles vac­cine is a “live” vac­cine. To pro­tect those vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple, we must ensure that prac­ti­cal­ly every­one else is vac­ci­nat­ed against measles.

Most of the deaths due to measles are due to oppor­tunis­tic infec­tions. Thus, it is hard­ly sur­pris­ing that the death rate from measles start­ed to fall after the intro­duc­tion of antibi­otics, even though antibi­otics have no effect on the measles virus itself. Yet even with the best of mod­ern med­ical care, peo­ple still die of measles. Even if they sur­vive, they may be left with per­ma­nent dis­abil­i­ties, such as blind­ness, deaf­ness, and brain dam­age. In some cas­es, the measles virus infec­tion may per­sist in the brain. This per­sis­tent infec­tion leads to a hor­ri­ble dis­ease called sub­a­cute scle­ros­ing panen­cephali­tis (SSPE), which slow­ly destroys the brain. Thus, it leads to a slow and hor­ri­ble death. There is no cure or even any effec­tive treat­ment. For­tu­nate­ly, SSPE can be pre­vent­ed by pre­vent­ing measles.

The vac­cine against measles pro­vides pow­er­ful, long-last­ing pro­tec­tion. If you have received two dos­es of the measles vac­cine, your chances of catch­ing measles go down by about 97%. Thanks to the wide­spread use of the measles vac­cine, measles was elim­i­nat­ed from the Unit­ed States by the year 2000. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, we still have occa­sion­al out­breaks of measles in the Unit­ed States. Most of these cas­es can be traced to some­one who was exposed to measles in some oth­er coun­try. So the best way to pro­tect our­selves against measles is to dri­ve the measles virus into extinc­tion world­wide.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, many par­ents are refus­ing to allow their chil­dren to be vac­ci­nat­ed against measles. Many of these par­ents have been told that it is bet­ter to allow their chil­dren to get sick, so that they devel­op immu­ni­ty nat­u­ral­ly. In real­i­ty, many of the vac­cine-pre­ventable dis­eases are dan­ger­ous because they sup­press the immune sys­tem. This immune sup­pres­sion is good for the germ that caus­es the dis­ease, but it is bad for the per­son who has the dis­ease. As a result, hav­ing a vac­cine-pre­ventable infec­tion can increase your risk of dying of some oth­er infec­tion.

Many par­ents are refus­ing vac­ci­na­tion because they think that the vac­cines are unnec­es­sary and unsafe. Con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists claim that vac­cines are being pro­mot­ed sim­ply to make mon­ey for the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies. Yet if some socio­path­ic “phar­ma bro” real­ly want­ed to make mon­ey on vac­cines, he would make sure that the vac­cine-pre­ventable dis­eases remain in cir­cu­la­tion. Once a dis­ease has been dri­ven into extinc­tion through vac­ci­na­tion, there is no longer any need to vac­ci­nate any­one against it.

Small­pox is extinct. Today, nobody vac­ci­nates chil­dren against small­pox. After polio is extinct, the sales of the polio vac­cine will drop to zero. Like small­pox and polio, measles is caused by a virus that can be found only in human beings. Once we have wiped measles, mumps, and rubel­la off the face of the earth, nobody will need the MMR vac­cine. But it would be mad­ness to stop vac­ci­nat­ing against those dis­eases before then.

For infor­ma­tion about efforts to erad­i­cate measles, vis­it the Measles & Rubel­la Ini­tia­tive.

Lies About the Pertussis Vaccine

Dr. S.H.* is a med­ical doc­tor, but she is spread­ing dan­ger­ous false mes­sages about vac­cines. In par­tic­u­lar, she has been mis­rep­re­sent­ing the results of a study of the vac­cines against per­tus­sis (whoop­ing cough). Anti­vac­ci­na­tion activists like to cite sci­en­tif­ic research. They want to cre­ate the impres­sion that they have done their home­work, and that their opin­ions are sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly sound. They often claim to be doing “research.” Yet when you look them up in www.pubmed.com, you find that their pub­li­ca­tion record is thin or nonex­is­tent. Although the anti­vac­ci­na­tion zealots some­times read med­ical jour­nal arti­cles, they typ­i­cal­ly mis­un­der­stand the arti­cles that they dis­cuss. As some­one who has edit­ed text­books and med­ical jour­nals for a liv­ing for more than 25 years, I find their mis­un­der­stand­ings to be irri­tat­ing. Their work is so full of obvi­ous errors of fact and errors in rea­son­ing that it would nev­er have passed muster at any of the sci­en­tif­ic pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies for which I have worked. And yet their work is get­ting plen­ty of hits on the Inter­net!

Dr. H.’s basic argu­ment is this: She thinks that it would be bet­ter for your baby to catch whoop­ing cough, which is a hor­ri­ble and some­times dead­ly dis­ease, than to be vac­ci­nat­ed against whoop­ing cough. This is what whoop­ing cough is like:

Some­times, per­tus­sis is even worse than this. Some new­borns are not strong enough to cough like this. Instead, they sim­ply stop breath­ing and die, with­out warn­ing.

Dr. H. claims that this study by War­fel and cowork­ers shows that hav­ing a nat­ur­al Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis infec­tion would be bet­ter than vac­ci­na­tion for pro­mot­ing herd immu­ni­ty. This idea is total non­sense. Whoop­ing cough was once com­mon. It is now rare, thanks to vac­ci­na­tion. Hav­ing more nat­ur­al cas­es of Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis infec­tion among the pop­u­la­tion would lead to more ill­ness and more deaths. Bet­ter vac­ci­na­tion cov­er­age leads to less ill­ness and few­er deaths.


The first vac­cine against Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis was intro­duced in 1940. At the time, rough­ly 6,000 Amer­i­cans per year were dying of whoop­ing cough. Rough­ly 95% of the dead were chil­dren. Thanks to the vac­ci­na­tion, the death rate dropped sharply. How­ev­er, we are still see­ing occa­sion­al cas­es of whoop­ing cough, even in high­ly vac­ci­nat­ed pop­u­la­tions. Even the immu­ni­ty that results from a nat­ur­al infec­tion lasts for only 4 to 20 years. The pro­tec­tion from vac­ci­na­tion lasts for only about 4 to 12 years. That is why doc­tors urge peo­ple to get boost­er shots against per­tus­sis. If you have par­tial immu­ni­ty to per­tus­sis, you might get only a mild case of the snif­fles from a Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis infec­tion. Yet you could pass the bac­te­ria on to some­one else, who could get severe­ly ill.

War­fel and cowork­ers want­ed to answer an impor­tant ques­tion: Is the mod­ern acel­lu­lar per­tus­sis vac­cine less effec­tive than the old-fash­ioned whole-cell vac­cine at pre­vent­ing the spread of Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis from per­son to per­son? Since it would be unthink­able to expose human beings to live Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis, the researchers used baboons as exper­i­men­tal sub­jects. (Of course, many peo­ple have eth­i­cal objec­tions to the use of ani­mals, and espe­cial­ly pri­mates, as research sub­jects.) Like human beings, baboons get a bad cough from a Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis infec­tion.

War­fel and cowork­ers found that both the acel­lu­lar vac­cine and the whole-cell vac­cine were effec­tive for their pri­ma­ry pur­pose, which is to pro­tect the vac­ci­nat­ed indi­vid­ual from get­ting sick after expo­sure to Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis. How­ev­er, the whole-cell vac­cine gave the baboons a lit­tle help in clear­ing the Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis from their upper res­pi­ra­to­ry tract. The acel­lu­lar per­tus­sis vac­cine did not. It took 21 days for the baboons that received the whole-cell vac­cine to clear the Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis from their upper res­pi­ra­to­ry tract. It took unvac­ci­nat­ed baboons and baboons that received the acel­lu­lar vac­cine about twice as long to clear the bac­te­ria from their upper res­pi­ra­to­ry tract.

Dr. H. point­ed out that the Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis bac­te­ria could not col­o­nize the baboons that were recov­er­ing from a recent Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis infec­tion. From that, she con­clud­ed that nat­ur­al infec­tions were bet­ter for pro­mot­ing herd immu­ni­ty. Yet even the immu­ni­ty pro­duced by a nat­ur­al infec­tion declines after a few years. Also, the basic repro­duc­tion num­ber of per­tus­sis is 5.5, which means that in a sus­cep­ti­ble pop­u­la­tion, a sin­gle nat­ur­al case of per­tus­sis would tend to lead to an aver­age of 5.5 new cas­es of per­tus­sis. So if we relied on nat­ur­al immu­ni­ty to solve our per­tus­sis prob­lem, we would have huge epi­demics of per­tus­sis, as opposed to occa­sion­al small out­breaks.

The study by War­fel and cowork­ers was not about whether to vac­ci­nate against per­tus­sis. It was about which vac­cine to use. In the 1990s, Amer­i­cans switched from the whole-cell vac­cine to the acel­lu­lar vac­cine because the whole-cell vac­cine some­times caused chil­dren to spike a fever. This fever could some­times cause a febrile seizure. These seizures were ter­ri­fy­ing to the par­ents, but they do no last­ing harm to the child. Some oth­er coun­tries con­sid­er this risk of fever to be accept­able because the whole-cell vac­cine may be bet­ter for stop­ping the spread of Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis.

Bor­de­tel­la per­tus­sis is found only in human beings. Thus, we might be able to dri­ve this germ into extinc­tion through vac­ci­na­tion. Once it is extinct, nobody will need to get a per­tus­sis vac­cine. Yet to dri­ve per­tus­sis into extinc­tion, we will need a bet­ter vac­cine, one that pro­vides longer-last­ing pro­tec­tion against the car­ri­er state, not just against clin­i­cal dis­ease. In the mean­time, we need for peo­ple to get their chil­dren vac­ci­nat­ed and to keep up to date with their per­tus­sis boost­ers!


*I do not use her real name because I do not like to give peo­ple unde­served atten­tion. I explain my rea­son­ing in these two books:



How to Report About a Mumps Outbreak

In Octo­ber of 2016, I saw a news report about a mumps out­break in Arkansas. The reporter men­tioned that mumps caus­es a flu-like ill­ness that can pro­duce swelling under the jaw, and that the dis­ease can last for about two weeks. How­ev­er, that report made it sound as if mumps were no big deal. But mumps is a very big deal.

Here are the basic facts that reporters should explain when­ev­er mumps breaks out:

  • Mumps is rarely fatal, but it can leave its vic­tims deaf in one or both ears.
  • Mumps can cause painful swelling of the tes­ti­cles and can leave men ster­ile.
  • Mumps is a res­pi­ra­to­ry virus, which is why it spreads eas­i­ly from per­son to per­son.
  • Vac­ci­na­tion is the only reli­able way to pre­vent infec­tions that spread eas­i­ly from per­son to per­son.
  • The vac­cine against the mumps is part of the measles-mumps-rubel­la (MMR) com­bined vac­cine.
  • To pre­vent mumps, we need to vac­ci­nate as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble. If a large enough per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion is immu­nized, then mumps stops spread­ing.
  • By vac­ci­nat­ing every­one who can be vac­ci­nat­ed, we can pro­tect the peo­ple who can­not be vac­ci­nat­ed (infants and peo­ple with immune sys­tem prob­lems).
  • A glob­al vac­ci­na­tion cam­paign could dri­ve measles, mumps, and rubel­la into extinc­tion.

Here are some use­ful memes for fight­ing mumps: