In a move likely to stoke an already raging debate over the safety of the vaccines routinely given to children, America's largest organization for pediatricians is strongly objecting to a proposal by the United Nations to ban a mercury-containing preservative from the world's vaccine supply.
Thimerosal has not been found to be harmful, and removal of thimerosal-containing vaccines would needlessly jeopardize the lives and health of millions of children in underdeveloped countries, said commentaries in Monday's issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Thus, the AAP has endorsed the recommendation of a panel of specialists at the World Health Organization (WHO), who say thimerosal should be excluded from a ban on mercury-containing products and processes.
Thimerosal, which has been used in vaccines since the 1930s to prevent bacteria and other pathogens from growing in multidose vials of vaccines, is implicated in the ban because it contains ethyl mercury.
The bans on mercury products, such as thermometers, and processes is being developed at meetings organized by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). The goal is to create a binding global treaty in which countries agree to end mercury pollution and toxic mercury exposures to humans and the environment.
Groups such as the Coalition for Mercury-Free Drugs have presented studies to the UNEP showing that there is "serious danger" in using mercury in vaccines and mercury-silver amalgam in dental fillings.
The UNEP is correct in its plans to "phase down" use of thimerosal, Eric Uram, executive director of the Coalition for SafeMinds, which is dedicated to eradicating autism and other health disorders "induced by mercury and other man-made toxicants."
Only a treaty like this will pressure the vaccine industry to pursue alternatives to thimerosal, said Mr. Uram, who has attended numerous UNEP sessions and plans to attend the next one in January.
In their commentaries released Monday, AAP specialists said blocking the use of thimerosal would put millions of children at risk for diseases.
About 84 million children are inoculated with thimerosal-containing vaccines because some countries lack refrigeration or can't afford the more costly single-dose vaccines, wrote Katherine King and colleagues.
"Banning thimerosal would amount to banning such multidose vaccines," which protect children from tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough and hepatitis B and save 1.4 million lives a year, they wrote.
Fifteen years of research "has failed to yield any evidence of significant harm," including serious neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, "from use of thimerosal in vaccines," wrote Dr. Walter Orenstein, associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center at Emory University in Georgia.
"All mercury is not the same, just like all alcohol is not the same," Dr. Orenstein told The Washington Times. For example, methyl alcohol, used in antifreeze, is toxic — "you wouldn't want to take a drink of that," he said. But ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is the alcohol in beer and wine.
The category of mercury that is toxic is methyl mercury, "which is not in vaccines," he said.
Vaccine-safety advocates, however, argue that autism was virtually unknown as a malady before 1930, but had a rate of 1 in 88 U.S. children as of 2000.
"What's going on? Why are so many American children sick?" Mark Blaxill, board member of Safe Minds, testified at a Nov. 29 hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The causes of autism and related disorders remain unknown, but researchers are looking for answers in genetics, environmental factors and maternal health, government medical specialists told the House committee.
In the United States, children are given single-dose vaccines, which do not contain thimerosal. However, thimerosal is still used in some influenza vaccines, and it would be used in a pandemic, when there is a need for swift, mass distribution of a vaccine.
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