Fears of link to autism lead British government to scrap vaccine containing mercury
LONDON, UK: A vaccine containing mercury given to babies when they are eight weeks old is to be scrapped in Britain amid fears of a link with autism.
Ago 8, 2004
The move follows recent research in the United Statesman that suggests a connection between thimerosal - the mercury-based preservative in the whooping cough vaccine, and autism.
The jab, without mercury, will now be given as part of a new five-in-one vaccine in the United Kingdom.
Britain's Department of Health has always maintained there is no evidence of any such link with autism.
One general practitioner, Dr Richard Halverson, welcomed the "long overdue" changes. He told BBC News: "I welcome the fact that mercury is being withdrawn because it is toxic and should not be injected into babies, full stop. Mercury is one of the most toxic elements on this planet. It has no business being ingested in any form by anyone. It serves no useful purpose, it is dangerous."
The British Health Minister, John Hutton, has confirmed the changes to childhood vaccines. "Childhood immunisation has been extremely effective in protecting children from serious life-threatening diseases", he said in a statement. "We are continually looking at ways to improve this programme as new, more effective products become available."
He said the new five-in-one injection, containing vaccinations for diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hib and polio, would be introduced later this year. "Following advice from our expert committees we have decided that, at the same time, thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative, will be removed from the new combined vaccine."
In June, it was announced that US researchers at Columbia University had found autism-like damage in the brains of mice exposed to thimerosal.
Despite the fact that other US and European studies had discovered no link between mercury and autism, the Columbia team said they had found that mice exposed to thiomersal showed signs of changed behaviour and brain abnormalities. The animals had been bred to be vulnerable to developing disorders of the immune system. The study team argued it was possible that children with similarly-compromised immunity may also be at risk.
In Britain, the multiple vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough) and Hib (haemophilus influnzae) known as DTwP/Hib, is the only one to contain mercury. The more expensive alternative whooping cough vaccine has been available for babies thought to be at risk of adverse vaccine reactions.
Dr Peter English, consultant in communicable diseases at the Health Protection Agency in the UK, says in the circular letter to GPs that there are three reasons for the change. "The primary objectives are: to do away with whole-cell pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine; to do away with live, oral polio vaccine and to do away with thimerosal vaccines."
Dr English asks doctors and other health professionals to treat the information "sensitively and keep it within the circle of health professionals" until the formal announcement, which will be made by Britain's chief medical officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, on August 9.
There is to be no change to the meningitis C vaccine programme or to the existing measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which does not contain mercury.
Professor John Oxford, professor of virology at Barts and The London, Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry, commenting on the decision, said that if there was "any doubt whatsoever" about the safety of mercury in vaccines then it should be removed.
He said there were no grounds for concern in giving five vaccines at once: "I don't think anyone has shown a shred of evidence that multiple vaccines can overwhelm the immune system. Every day, our immune systems are exposed to much more than that."
However, campaigners who believe vaccines have damaged their children said they were “extremely worried” about the plans for a new five-in-one immunisation jab for babies.
Although the removal of thimerosal was widely welcomed, concerns were expressed about the new five-in-one vaccine.The jab, which is expected to be introduced in September, will vaccinate babies against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, Hib and polio at two months.
Jackie Fletcher, the founder of Jabs (Justice, Awareness and Basic Support), a support group for the concerned parents, said she was “extremely worried” about the plans.
“With five-in-one vaccines, we would want to know what safety trials have taken place,” she said. “How did they find out it was safe to do it in this combination? We know that for other vaccines the safety trials have been extremely limited. Increasing the combinations increases the potential for an adverse reaction and restricts choice for parents, when the government said it wanted to improve choice.
“I am not anti-vaccine – I know they have been designed for a good reason – but I am concerned that we do not end up in another situation like MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) where pre-licence trials were proved to have been inadequate.What we want to see is more choice, where the vaccines are designed around what is right for the individual child.”
Supporters say the immunisation, licensed as Prevnar, could save some 40 lives a year. The minutes of most recent meeting of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation show that studies have been ordered to "find the most effective way to implement the vaccine into the UK schedule."
The joint committee's chairman, Professor Michael Langman, said that there remained a number of "complex" issues surrounding the introduction of the vaccination against the bacteria which can lead to pneumonia and meningitis. But it is clear from the committee's minutes that the decision has become a matter of "when" - and not "if" - the jab is introduced.
A new 20-year study published in the journal Archives of Childhood Diseases this month has added weight to those supporting its introduction. Dr Richard Slack, one of its authors, said there was now enough evidence to support the move. Children are already routinely vaccinated against the meningitis B and C strains: this would protect against the pneumococcal form of the disease.
But the cost implications of giving the new vaccine to all the 1.4 million infants in Britain under two are massive.
And opposition MPs have rounded on the announcement, insisting that the Department of Health was risking provoking a parents' revolt unless it could provide adequate reassurance over the new jab's safety.
Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, said: "There may be good reasons to introduce this, but Ministers must do more to take the public with them." Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrats' health spokesman, warned that there could be no repeat of the chaos where "pre-licence trials had been proved to have been inadequate."
Britain's National Autistic Society said: “We welcome the removal of mercury from vaccines. We have supported moves to ensure that mercury is not used within the immunisation programme as a precautionary measure.”
Dr Mary Ramsey, of the Health Protection Agency, insisted that the new five-in-one vaccine was safer. “It is exactly the same amount of vaccines that we are giving to children,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We are just giving them in a different form. So instead of having the oral vaccine, which was actually associated very very rarely with causing a form of polio, this will actually be a safer form of vaccine, because it will be given in an inactivated form, which doesn’t have that risk. This vaccine is less likely to cause adverse effects, there is really very good evidence that it is less likely to do that.
“It is a much more purified form of the whooping cough vaccine which actually has fewer antigens, fewer proteins in it, so actually we are reducing the amount of stimulation children are getting, so it is actually safer and less likely to cause any problems.
“We have not rushed into this decision. We have been waiting for the right vaccine and the right time. And this is a vaccine which has been used widely in Canada and has been very successful.”
Dr Andrew Wakefield, the British gastroenterologist whose research in 1998 raised the first fears that the MMR combined jab could be linked to children developing autism, welcomed the decision to remove mercury from the jab as a victory for parents.
He said: "It should never have been there in the first place. Despite how they try to sell it, there is evidence that there is an association between mercury in vaccines and childhood disorders. Mercury was taken out of animal vaccinations 20 years ago because it was too toxic. Why on earth have we still been putting it in jabs for our children?"
But Dr Wakefield raised concerns about government plans to introduce the cost-saving five-in-one vaccine and said more research should be done before it was offered. "They are giving more and more vaccinations to children in one session, but they seem to be saying there is no evidence that this will overwhelm a child’s immune system. There is no evidence because they have not looked for it."
Dr Peter Mansfield, a former GP who is now a healthy living adviser, said: "The disadvantages are legion. The big minus is that we are still giving a major combined vaccine to a child who is frankly far too young for a treatment of this sort. There is also a problem of credibility: they spent years telling us that the mercury in the vaccine was safe and now they are removing it. That’s fine, but it doesn’t help people know what to believe."
David Davidson, the Scottish opposition Tory health spokesman, warned that Ministers risked alienating parents by insisting that vaccines needed to be taken in a single jab.
He said: "I have concerns that there will be a reluctance to accept this blockbuster-style vaccine. Because there was a lack of choice for parents, there was a lack of confidence."
Bill Welsh, the chairman of the Glasgow-based charity, Action Against Autism, said: "I welcome the removal of the mercury but I do not welcome the five-in-one vaccine. I do not believe that the body of a two-month-old baby can accept that much punishment - that’s five vaccines all at once. What they need to tell us is what research has been done on this new vaccine, where it has been tested, how long and the interests of those who tested it."
(Sources; BBC News Online, Daily Telegraph, PA News, Independent on Sunday, The Scotsman, August 7 and 8, 2004)