Who Took the Mercury Out of Vaccines?

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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.