Today, children routinely receive 21 vaccinations before they even enter kindergarten- more than double what they received even a decade ago. Vaccine fears are at an all time high, intensified by the recall of the rotavirus vaccine and the problem of MERCURY-CONTAINING vaccines. The debate has reached Congress, which conducted hearings in August 1999. Like antibiotics, vaccines have prevented unfathomable suffering, but they also have a real, human cost. Just because we can make a vaccine doesn't mean that we should give it. Instead we need a sober, continuing reevaluation of the risks and benefits of each vaccine in the ever-changing world in which we live.
Mercury (thimerosal) is an ingredient in several vaccines -- included in order to kill any live contaminants. It is most likely to be used for a vaccine stored in a multi-dose vial. In rare instances, this causes allergic reactions. At much higher doses, mercury is a known cause of irreversible nerve and brain damage, especially before birth and in the first 6 months of life.
Mercury was responsible for the first known epidemic of cerebral palsy from a toxin when it was dumped into Minamata Bay in Japan in the 1950's by a vinyl plastics factory. Might it also cause mercury toxicity in children who frequently get mercury-containing vaccines? This has long been a concern with the gamma globulin shot used to prevent Hepatitis A in travelers. Where practical, the Hepatitis A vaccine is a safer and more effective alternative that does not contain mercury. Still, getting a shot of gamma globulin is still far better than getting hepatitis.
All of the vaccines now in the routine schedule are available in thimerosal-free forms. Other vaccines such as the diphtheria-tetanus, meningococcal, influenza vaccines, and gamma globulin will still contain thimerosal after the first quarter of 2001.These vaccines are not recommended for children as part of the recommended childhood immunization schedule, though for some children the benefits will outweigh the risks. In addition, the vaccination of children in much of the world will continue to require the use of multi-dose vials for reasons of cost and storage capacity.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the United States Public Health Service (PHS) have called for the elimination of mercury from all vaccines. Multi-dose vials require a preservative to prevent microbial contamination after the vial is opened, but manufacturers are encouraged to seek alternatives.