Vaccines For Kids Now Mercury-Free in California

One encephalitis strain is only exception as new law takes effect.

By Dorsey Griffith for the Sacramento Bee

Vaccines containing a mercury-based preservative are now largely off-limits to children under 3 and pregnant women in California.

The only exception to the new state law, which took effect on Saturday, is the vaccine against Japanese encephalitis virus, a deadly mosquito-borne illness endemic to certain parts of Asia.

The new law, by Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, was aimed at reducing the risk of neurodevelopmental problems such as autism, which many parents believe can be traced to exposure to thimerosal, long used as a preservative in many vaccines.

Several large federal studies have shown no link between childhood vaccines and autism, but additional research is continuing.

The U.S. Public Health Service and the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1999 began to advocate the elimination of thimerosal from vaccines because some infants who received them were exposed to mercury at levels that exceeded Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

Except for trace amounts, which are allowable under the new law, thimerosal has been removed from childhood vaccines.

The flu vaccine had been an exception. But concerns about its safety re-emerged in 2004, after the federal government recommended that babies between 6 months and 2 years be added to the list of those who should get annual flu shots.

Aventis Pasteur, the company that manufactures the lion’s share of flu vaccine, has increased the supplies of its thimerosal-free version in response to demand.

“Based on what we know, we anticipate there will be an adequate supply of thimerosal-free flu vaccine for pregnant women and children under 3,”
said Department of Health Services spokesman Ken August.

The state has ordered 684,480 doses of flu vaccine to be distributed to counties for the upcoming season. The total includes 50,000 doses of thimerosal-free vaccine for children ages 1-3 and 15,000 doses for pregnant women. In addition, the state ordered 10,000 doses of FluMist, also thimerosal-free, for use in healthy people ages 5-49.

Aventis had opposed the Pavley bill, citing in a statement concerns that the ban could “undermine public confidence in immunization and ultimately deprive children of access to needed influenza vaccine.”

In response to industry worries and related concerns cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the legislation ultimately was amended to give the industry more time to stock up on thimerosal-free flu vaccine.

The new law also allows for exceptions when no other alternatives are available or during public health emergencies.

August said Kim Belshé, health and human services secretary, issued an exception for the Japanese encephalitis virus vaccine: “Given the absence of a mercury-free vaccine against Japanese encephalitis virus and because the risks of fatal disease or brain injury far exceed any risk of mercury in the vaccine, the secretary is exercising her authority and temporarily exempting the vaccine from the provision of the law for a 12-month period.”

About 50,000 cases of the disease are reported annually in Asia. There is no cure, and up to 25 percent of those infected die from the disease.

August said that California distributes about 32,000 doses of the three-dose vaccine annually. Last year, 19,000 went to the military and the rest to people traveling to certain parts of Asia. It is unknown how many of those doses went to very young children or pregnant women.

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