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Caution on Vaccines with Mercury

By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There is no proof that a mercury-containing
preservative present in some vaccines causes developmental disorders
in children, but doctors should steer clear of giving children vaccines
made with the substance just to be safe, a panel of experts said in a
report on Monday.
The report by a panel convened by the Institute of Medicine, which
provides advice on health issues to the U.S. government under a
congressional charter, focused on thimerosal, long used in some
vaccines and other pharmaceutical products to prevent bacterial and
fungal contamination.
The committee concluded that no evidence currently exists proving a
link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism, attention
deficit-hyperactivity disorder, speech or language delays, or other
neurodevelopmental disorders.
But the panel said it is ``biologically plausible'' that some children's
risk of one of these disorders could be increased by exposure to
mercury from vaccines containing thimerosal, which contains nearly 50
percent mercury by weight. The experts said existing evidence is
insufficient either to accept or reject the idea that vaccines containing
mercury can cause these childhood disorders.
Mercury, a heavy metal that can harm the nervous system, can build
up in the human body with each exposure, whether from vaccinations
or other sources such as contaminated fish.
Very few vaccines used in the United States still contain thimerosal and
many types of vaccines never contained it, the panel said. But the
committee recommended that, as a prudent precaution, vaccines that
contain thimerosal not be administered when there is an alternative.
``If a vaccine without thimerosal is available, it should be used.
However, if that vaccine is not available, it's far better to be vaccinated
with a thimerosal-containing vaccine than not be vaccinated,'' Marie
McCormick, a professor of maternal and child health at Harvard School
of Public Health who headed the Institute of Medicine committee, said
in telephone conference call with reporters.
``REAL, PROVEN THREATS''
Some health professionals have expressed alarm that some parents
are refusing to allow their children to receive recommended vaccines
because of concerns about mercury.
McCormick said childhood immunization is one of the most effective
tools for preventing millions of cases of disease and death. She said
vaccines protect against ``real, proven threats to unvaccinated infants,
children, and pregnant women,'' while the health effects of thimerosal
are uncertain.

The report was requested by federal health officials.


Thimerosal has been used in vaccines since the 1930s.
But the three-in-one vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella (also
called German measles) never contained the preservative, nor did the
vaccines for chicken pox or polio.
Several other vaccines recommended for children were made with
thimerosal until recently. The committee said these vaccines now are
made without it, but an unknown, probably small number of vaccine
doses remain on clinic shelves. They include vaccines for hepatitis B,
diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough), and haemophilus
influenzae type B (Hib), a form of bacterial meningitis.
A few vaccines, including influenza vaccine given annually during the
viral flu season to adults and some children, still are manufactured with
thimerosal.
Thimerosal also remains in use in many other countries.
Two years ago, the federal government and leading medical
organizations urged new limits on mercury exposure of infants and
young children -- a move that instigated the development of routine
childhood vaccines made without thimerosal.
The panel urged that government agencies and professional societies
review their policies about nasal sprays, eye drops and other products
that still contain thimerosal and are used for infants, children and
pregnant women.
Activists who have been critical of the mercury content in vaccines said
they were pleased the report acknowledged that it is plausible that
thimerosal-containing vaccines can cause neurological problems. Sallie
Bernard of the New Jersey-based group Safe Minds advocated the
immediate recall of remaining stocks of childhood vaccines containing
thimerosal.