Mercury-free flu vaccine option gives concerned parents shot in the arm

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By TERRY RINDFLEISCH, 14 Oct 2006

A limited supply of mercury-free flu vaccine will be available in La Crosse for children whose parents are concerned about any potential dangers.

The minute amount of thimerosal, a type of mercury used since the 1930s as a preservative to kill bacteria and prevent contamination in some vaccines, poses no risk to patients, La Crosse physicians said.

But Dr. Rajiv Naik, a Gundersen Lutheran pediatrician, said the Internet has fed fears that vaccinations that contain thimerosal are linked to autism.

People actually are exposed to much more mercury in the environment — water, air and diet — than they would receive in vaccinations, Naik said.

And thimerosal contains about 50 percent ethyl mercury, different from the methyl mercury found in fish and other foods, he said.

Naik said no major reputable study has shown any harm caused by low doses of thimerosal in vaccines, except for minor reactions such as redness and swelling at the injection site.

“There has never been a single case of toxicity documented,” Naik said. “The flu vaccine is very, very safe. Parents shouldn’t be concerned, but there are groups and individuals who want to believe there’s something wrong with the vaccines despite no evidence.”

Dr. C.J. Menagh, Franciscan Skemp Healthcare pediatrician, said breastfeeding mothers give their children more mercury than all of the thimerosal in childhood vaccinations.

The tiny amount of thimerosal in the flu vaccine also is quickly excreted by the body, Menagh said.

“This type of mercury is much safer, and the body handles it differently,” Menagh said. “We’re talking a very, very tiny amount in vaccines.”

Today, all routinely recommended children’s vaccines being manufactured for the United States, with the exception of the flu vaccine, no longer contain thimerosal or only trace amounts.

Menagh said only two manufacturers make the mercury-free flu vaccine, which is more expensive, but more mercury-free vaccine should be available in coming years.

FluMist, the nasal spray flu vaccine recommended for ages 5 to 49, also is mercury-free, but patients need to see their physicians about its use and availability.

Flu shot clinics will not offer the mercury-free vaccine, but patients can talk to the physicians about getting the vaccine.

Naik said some people think thimerosal must be harmful because the Public Health Service, American Academy of Pediatrics and vaccine manufacturers agreed in 1999 that thimerosal should be reduced or eliminated in vaccines as a precautionary measure.

“That was done to maintain public trust, and we thought if we can find alternatives, then we should take thimerosal out of the vaccines when we can, even though it is safe,” Naik said.

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