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Mercury Levels in Vaccines Eyed

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Health - AP Associated Press
Tuesday February 8, 2005 4:31 PM ET

LOS ANGELES - A memo from the drug maker Merck & Co. shows that its executives were concerned about high levels of mercury in children's vaccinations nearly eight years before health officials disclosed a similar finding, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday.
Six-month-old children who received shots could get a mercury dose up to 87 times higher than guidelines for the maximum daily consumption of mercury from fish, according to the March 1991 obtained by the Times.

"When viewed in this way, the mercury load appears rather large," Dr. Maurice R. Hilleman, an internationally renowned vaccinologist, wrote to the president of Merck's vaccine division.

The memo came at a time when health authorities were recommending shots for children that contained an anti-bacterial compound called thimerosal, the Times reported. Thimerosal contains mercury and was once used in the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine.

In 1999, federal health officials concluded that routine vaccinations were exposing many infants to quantities of mercury above health guidelines. The U.S. Public Health Service said there was no evidence of harm but urged manufacturers to avoid mercury in vaccines.

Merck later introduced a hepatitis B vaccine that was mercury free that replaced the only thimerosal-containing vaccine it offered at the time, a company spokesman said.

Merck officials declined to discuss details of the memo with the Times because of pending litigation.

Mercury-laced vaccines have led to more than 4,200 claims in a special federal tribunal by parents who claim their children were harmed as a result. Alleged injuries include autism and other neurodevelopment disorders.

The newspaper obtained the memo from a lawyer who works with parent groups on vaccine safety issues and who said he acquired it from an unidentified whistle-blower.

Thimerosal has been largely removed from pediatric vaccines in recent years.

Separately, Merck had planned to conduct a study of the potential heart risks of its pain drug Vioxx but never started it despite advanced preparations, according to a report Tuesday in The New York Times. Merck executives had long said they never pursued a trial to directly study the drug's heart risks.

Vioxx was pulled off the market last September after a trial studying the drug to see if it could prevent the reoccurrence of colon polyps found it doubled patients' risk of heart attack and strokes. The trial that would have studied Vioxx's heart risks would have produced data by March 2004, the Times report said.

Work on the study was halted as Merck and federal regulators were discussing how to change Vioxx's label to reflect data from a different trial which showed an increased risk of cardiovascular problems, the newspaper said.

Merck officials told the Times the decision to halt the study was unrelated to those talks. It said there was some concern that some of the patients in the study would be taking aspirin, which helps prevent heart attack and strokes while others would not.

Merck faces hundreds of lawsuits over Vioxx, the popular painkiller it introduced in 1999.

The company, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., has been accused in the suits of marketing a drug that caused heart problems and concealing the risks. Merck has denied the allegations.

Merck shares rose 37 cents to close at $28.80 in Tuesday trading on the New York Stock Exchange. They have traded as low as $25.60 in the wake of the Vioxx recall.



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