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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006 12:55 am

Mercury rising again

State agency seeks to circumvent Legislature’s ban on vaccines containing thimerosal

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Springfield radiologist David Ayoub disputes the state’s assertion that there could be a vaccine shortage because of the mercury-free law.
PHOTO BY NICK STEINKAMP
Citing cost concerns and a potential shortfall for the upcoming flu season, the Illinois Department of Public Health filed for a 12-month exemption to the Mercury-Free Vaccine Act, passed last summer to limit the use of vaccines containing mercury. However, child-health-care advocates who lobbied for the bill’s passage are upset by what they believe was a premeditated attempt by IDPH to circumvent state law. After it sailed through both chambers of the state Legislature with just one no vote, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the legislation, introduced as House Bill 511 by Rep. Kurt Granberg, D-Centralia, in August. The law bans the use of vaccines formulated with more than 1.25 micrograms of the preservative thimerosal, which contains small amounts of mercury, a neurotoxin. Some studies have linked thimerosal to autism in children [see Michleen Collins, “Mercury falling,” Feb. 24, 2005]. The exemption affects diphtheria and tetanus vaccines DT, Td, and TT, as well as vaccines against Meningococcus and Japanese encephalitis and the 2005/2006 formula for influenza vaccination. Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for IDPH, acknowledges that the agency decided to prepare an exemption in June — before the bill was signed into law — in case of an emergency such as an outbreak or vaccine shortage or if the measure proved cost-prohibitive to the state. To supply the state with enough mercury-free vaccine, Arnold says, the world’s three flu-vaccine manufacturers would have to completely overhaul their manufacturing processes. Furthermore, IDPH plans to file exemptions every year until enough mercury-free product is available at a reasonable price, Arnold says. However, Springfield radiologist David Ayoub notes that mercury-free vaccine costs only about $2 more per dose. Compare that, he says, with a family’s average cost per year to care for a child with autism — $60,000 to $80,000, to say nothing of the amount the state will spend on special education — and it’s a no-brainer, he claims. Laura Cellini, mother of an autistic child, has lobbied to ensure the passage of the mercury-free-vaccine law. She says that the additional cost could even be passed on to parents. Most, she argues, would be willing to pay $2 more per shot. “Instead of working on an exemption, I wish they’d worked to secure more mercury-free vaccine,” Cellini says. Ayoub also rejects IDPH’s assertion that there could be a vaccine shortage, saying that more than enough mercury-free pediatric vaccine exists for the remainder of this year’s flu season. Last year’s extra doses, he says, had to be destroyed. IDPH’s Arnold agrees, telling Illinois Times that the exemption filed on Jan. 1 only applies to adult vaccine doses. “That’s flat wrong,” says state Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, one of the bill’s sponsors. Harmon says that he must check to see whether the Legislature has the power to override the IDPH exemption, but if it does, he says, the issue could be raised again during the current shortened legislative session. Although Arnold says that mercury-free vaccine is the preferred alternative, IDPH doesn’t believe that any correlation exists between thimerasol and autism. “Science doesn’t support the urgency of a mercury-free vaccine,” Arnold says. However, Cellini notes that when thimerosal-laden vaccines are discarded, they must be handled as toxic waste. According to a Merck & Co. material data safety sheet on thimerosal, the substance is “very toxic,” particularly to aquatic environments and organisms. “Mercury everywhere else on the planet is toxic, but they think when it’s put in a lifesaving drug, the discussion becomes about vaccines,” Cellini says. She adds: “We’re not anti-vaccine — we just want a safer vaccine.”
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