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The Vaccine Safety Double Standard

By Lisa Sykes

At a United Nations meeting held this past July in Punte del Este, Uruguay, the World Health Organization (WHO) finally revealed its 2004 guidelines on eliminating, reducing, and replacing thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used primarily in vaccines, to public health officials worldwide.

Why would issuing eight-year-old guidelines about removing a toxic preservative from vaccines matter? It is, to say the least, a long story, filled with large doses of intrigue, back-room dealings, and major disparities between the haves and have-nots of the world. But in truth, it all comes down to three simple facts. One: Thimerosal is toxic. Two: Stocks of thimerosal-free vaccines are readily available, particularly in wealthier, Western nations. And three: Millions of people, especially those living in developing countries, continue to be unnecessarily exposed to mercury through vaccines that contain toxic doses of thimerosal.

These three facts have been at the heart of a decadelong fight led by the Coalition for Mercury-free Drugs (CoMeD) to pressure local, state and national governments worldwide to ban the use of thimerosal in human pharmaceuticals, especially vaccines. CoMeD charges that eight decades of scientific studies and extensive peer-reviewed scientific and medical papers have all come to the same conclusion: Thimerosal, 49 percent mercury by weight and a recognized neurotoxin, poses a significant health risk, especially to pregnant women and children. Manufacturers acknowledge that exposure in utero or in childhood can lead to mild-to-severe mental retardation and/or autism in mercury-sensitive children.

Earlier this year, a study funded by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare again found that prenatal exposure to the drug thimerosal produces permanent brain impairment and autism-like abnormalities. That study, conducted by Dr. Ida-Eto, concluded, “…embryonic exposure to thimerosal produces lasting impairment of the brain…thus every effort should be made to avoid the use of thimerosal.”

Astoundingly, the material safety data sheets for thimerosal list not only mild-to-severe mental retardation, but also miscarriage and abortion as potential outcomes to in-utero exposure. Despite such grave warnings—and the fact that safer, less toxic alternatives are readily available and economical—thimerosal continues to be used as a preservative in vaccines, including the flu shot administered routinely to pregnant women. Thimerosal—an unnecessary, undisclosed and unsafe vaccine component—is leaving millions of unsuspecting victims in its wake.

I personally can attest to this point. Like so many others, I was injected with thimerosal without knowing it when I was 28 weeks pregnant with my second son, Wesley. This prenatal exposure, coupled with further exposure to mercury from numerous, routine thimerosal-containing vaccines after his birth, disabled my son, who ultimately was diagnosed with both autism and mercury poisoning. We estimate lifetime care for Wesley will cost more than $20 million.

This is but one of the many unspoken costs of not discontinuing the use of thimerosal in vaccines and other drugs. In the United States, statistics show that in my son’s generation, vaccines typically contained more t

han 100 times the maximum safety exposure limit for mercury. As a result, more than one in six children in the U.S. today is affected by a behavioral or developmental disorder. More than 25 percent will have at least one lifetime chronic medical condition. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued in May of this year indicates that one out of every 88 children in the U.S. has autism, up from a historic rate of 1 in 10,000.

Given those alarming numbers, you would assume government pressure to ban thimerosal use would be intense. You would be wrong. Instead, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to assert that there is “no evidence of harm” from thimerosal use in vaccines, and that “the benefits of influenza vaccination outweigh the theoretical risk, if any, for thimerosal exposure,” a claim that contradicts science, medicine and common sense. Moreover, the CDC continues to refuse to state a preference for giving available thimerosal-free vaccines to pregnant women and developing children.

Similarly, the U.S. State Department, through its Office of Environmental Policy, is espousing a position on mercury in human pharmaceuticals that harms both the reputation of our nation and the health of our children. Testifying in July 2012 at the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC4) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the State Department delegation voiced its support for a ban of mercury from cosmetics, while quietly opposing the removal of mercury from vaccines injected into pregnant women and newborn children the world over.

Rev. Lisa Sykes at the United Nations Office in Nairobi (UNON). Rev Sykes represented the Coalition for Mercury-free Drugs (CoMeD, Inc.), of which she is the president. A non-governmental organization (NGO), CoMeD is the strongest voice advocating for a complete ban of mercury in medicines, especially vaccines.

This pattern of quiet opposition has been replicated internationally. Since June 2000, the World Health Organization repeatedly has held meetings—always behind closed doors—to discuss the use of mercury in vaccines. While those meetings purport to examine alternative vaccine preservatives, as well as the economic, programmatic and manufacturing implications of moving to single-dose, preservative-free vaccines, the results of those sessions include repeated and hollow declarations that there is no evidence of harm from the use of thimerosal in vaccines, and that certain vaccines in the developing world must continue to contain thimerosal.

Such unfounded assertions have led not only to a continued plethora of misinformation about thimerosal, but also to the quiet but steady establishment of two standards of vaccine safety, one which is predominately mercury-free for developed, Western countries and one that is mercury-preserved for developing countries. This de facto economic prioritization of mercury-free vaccines for wealthy Western nations, while developing countries—and especially the women and children who live in them—receive mercury-containing ones, constitutes a double standard of safety.

This practice is even more egregious when we consider that thimerosal failed the United States’ and the European Union’s pharmacopeia tests for an effective preservative. The bottom line is that the existence of a two-tier standard for vaccine safety clearly reveals a lack of ethics and honesty for all the world to see.