Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
The U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) is considering a ban on a vaccine preservative that is widely used in developing countries.
The safety of thimerosal, also known as thiomersal, has come under fire in the past, and the U.N. is expected to make a decision on the future use of the preservative after a final meeting in January, according to various media outlets.
The vaccine preservative contains mercury, and was removed from most childhood vaccines in the U.S. and Europe more than a decade ago.
The proposal for banning thimerosal is churning up support from public health officials to reassure its safety. Papers published in the journal Pediatrics argue against an international ban.
Thimerosal helps to keep vaccines from going bad in parts of the world where other options, such as refrigeration, are not available.
The proposed ban is part of a larger effort to reduce exposure to mercury, but public health officials say that the benefits outweigh the risks.
NPR reports that Dr. Walter Orenstein of the Emory Vaccine Center at Emory University, and author of one of the papers opposing the ban, said that if the ban was approved, pertussis or whooping cough could really resurge in the developing areas.
For a while, parents were concerned that thimerosal in vaccines caused autism in some of the children. Researchers also realized that some children could be getting more mercury from vaccines than the Environmental Protection Agency thought to be safe.
“At the time, we just didn’t know what the toxic effects might be or might not be,” Orenstein said in a statement to NPR’s John Hamilton. “And one of our concerns was, what if we did the studies and three years later found there was harm?”
Groups opposed to thimerosal said they are not convinced by the studies, and they say it is wrong to give the preservative to children in developing countries.
Eric Uram, executive director of the U.S.-based group SafeMinds, told NPR that the practice is “egregious, offensive and unacceptable.”
SafeMinds is pushing hard for the international ban, and the organization has contacted officials from several countries. However, those countries said they are hesitant to speak up because the World Health Organization has determined the preservative is safe.
Despite SafeMinds’ worry, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there is no convincing evidence of harm caused by the low doses of thimerosal in vaccines.
Orenstein pointed out that banning the preservative could erode low vaccination rates in developing countries. He said these countries have limited resources, and that children there are already under vaccinated. The ban would just under-vaccinate these children even more.