California bans mercury-containing vaccines for pregnant women, kids

Oct 1, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – Pregnant women and children younger than 3 in California will soon no longer receive vaccines containing more than a trace of mercury, under a law approved this week.

Vaccines for those groups will contain no more than a trace of thimerosal (termed thimerosal-free in the industry)—a preservative in some vaccines that contains ethyl mercury. The law takes effect in July 2006, according to news services.

Parent-led activist groups attribute increased rates of autism and other neurological disorders in children to mercury, although scientific studies have failed to confirm any clear link.

California becomes the second state, after Iowa, to ban the agent in vaccines.

In signing the bill, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "I believe that an abundance of caution merits the acceleration of the process already under way to remove thimerosal from the last few vaccines that contain it," according to a Los Angeles Times story.

The bill's author, Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, said, "Any time we can reduce public exposure to mercury or any other neurotoxin and there is an alternative readily available, we should be promoting the alternative."

Vaccine producers have voluntarily reduced thimerosal levels in vaccines, except for Aventis Pasteur, sole supplier for flu inoculations for children younger than 2, the Times story said. The company was the only vaccine manufacturer to openly oppose the bill. The agent is used to control bacteria and fungi in multiple-dose vials, the usual and most cost-efficient vehicle for distribution of flu vaccine.

An Aventis statement expressed disappointment over the law and concern that it might discourage people from getting flu shots for kids. A UPI story from Aug 27, right after the California Senate passed the bill, said Aventis saw the bill "as unnecessarily frightening at a time when the industry is not yet equipped to satisfy demand without using thimerosal."

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the US Public Health Service joined in calling for removal of the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal from vaccines about 5 years ago. By 2001, all the vaccines recommended at that time for children under age 7 were available without thimerosal or with only trace amounts.

But this year, in recommending for the first time that 6- to 23-month-old children routinely get flu shots, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in May did not go on record in favor of a thimerosal-free formulation of the vaccine.

The CDC's position is that the risk of flu complications far outweighs the risk from thimerosal in the vaccine.

See also:

May 6, 2004 CIDRAP News story "CDC neutral on thimerosal in flu vaccine for toddlers"

This week's top reads