Lawmaker calls for mercury-free flu vaccines
Shots' link to autism spurs effort by Pavley
SACRAMENTO -- After Assemblywoman Fran Pavley raised her microphone in late May to present her proposal to bar the use of a mercury-based preservative in flu vaccines given to young children and pregnant women, she backed away in lip-biting silence.
Before she finished, her presentation was halted three times by invisible but voice-cracking tears.
Eventually, the measure would pass comfortably, but the votes were at first slow to come. When the decisive vote was cast, an opponent loudly groused on the Assembly floor that it had been "a sympathy vote." Two colleagues quickly confronted the complainer to hush him and tell him what he needed to know: Pavley has an autistic son.
Mercury is a known factor that can inhibit fetal brain development and lead to such neurological diseases as mental retardation and autism.
Today, Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, will likely again present her bill to the Assembly, and if her colleagues concur with amendments added in the Senate, this time the measure to require mercury-free flu vaccines will be sent to the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarz enegger.
Pavley said the bill is not specifically about autism and that the issue does not directly relate to her 26-year-old son David, whose age group was not subject to the high number of pediatric vaccinations that came later. "However," she said, "I do understand the concerns of parents with autistic children."
A 1999 study of such parents found that only a small portion with children born in the 1980s believe immunizations may have caused the disease; a third of those with children born in 1990s believe that.
If enacted, Pavley's bill, AB 2943, would accelerate a national movement to remove the preservative thimerosal, which contains 50 percent ethyl mercury, from children's vaccines. Since 1999, thimerosal has been eliminated in other pediatric vaccines, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged manufacturers to reduce or eliminate its use in all vaccines.
The CDC recommends that, beginning next year, all children between 6 months and 2 years receive an annual flu vaccine. Pavley's bill would take effect July 1, 2006.
The University of California, Davis, M.I.N.D. Institute, created by the Legislature in part to address a 273 percent increase in the incidence of autism in the state between 1987 and 1998, encourages parents to request thimerosal-free vaccines for their children.
Critics, including the vaccine-maker Aventis Pasteur and Republicans in the Legislature, say the proposal would put the state out in front of the responsible federal health authorities and potentially discourage parents from having their children vaccinated against influenza.
Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, an oral surgeon, argued against the bill earlier this week before it passed the Senate on a party-line vote.
"This bill is neither based on science nor is it based on necessity," Aanestad said.
He argued that the industry was in the process of converting to mercury-free vaccines and that a law in California to mandate that the process be accelerated would create "a significant problem with the delivery of vaccines."
The bill allows the state Department of Health and Human Services to waive the requirement in the event of a vaccine shortage.
Department officials have told Pavley they are opposed to the bill, and the Department of Finance has written a letter of opposition. Those two arms of the Schwarzenegger administration will likely recommend that the governor veto the bill should it reach his desk.
Isaac Pessah, a molecular biologist and researcher with the M.I.N.D. Institute, described the measure as a sound and "very cautious piece of legislation."
While only one study, performed on mice, has found a direct link between thimerosal and autism, Pessah said the underlying scientific justification for a ban is more clear.
"One has to ask, is mercury a neuro-developmental toxicant? The answer is that clearly it is," Pessah said. "Is thimerosal different from other mercury toxicants? The answer is no."