Several articles published in Pediatrics today discuss an issue that could affect the protection of children everywhere from vaccine-preventable diseases. The posts center on a controversy that keeps coming up related to vaccines – the use of thimerosal in them.
All three Pediatrics articles deal with the same thing: an international treaty drafted by the United Nation Environmental Program’sGlobal Mercury Partnership to reduce mercury pollution and environmental mercury exposure across the world. Great! This is an important and valuable initiative – except for one part. As part of the treaty, the UN wants to ban the use of thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative, used in vaccines. Not so good. The short version for why? This proposed ban threatens millions of children’s lives across the world, including children in the U.S. and in other developed countries. I’ll get to the long version in a moment.
Here’s the back story:
A 1997 US FDA review of the mercury content in products revealed that the amount of thimerosal in childhood vaccines could, possibly theoretically, build up to exceed the EPA’s guidelines (but not the FDA’s guidelines or those of the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry) on safe exposure limits for inorganic mercury, called methylmercury.
Methylmercury is the neurotoxin you hear about when you’re warned not to eat too much fish ( especially while pregnant). Back in 1999, scientists knew a lot about methylmercury, but they didn’t know much about ethylmercury, the type in thimerosal. As Dr. Louis Cooper and Dr. Samuel Katz, both involved with the 1999 recommendations, put it, “the absence of clear data for ethylmercury did not allow any assumption to be made about its safety.”
Meanwhile, debates were raging in Congress about concerns over vaccines and autism, fueled by the now-retracted and thoroughly debunked (pdf) study by Andrew Wakefield linking the MMR vaccine to autism. Parents were scared and confused. Media coverage was exacerbating the impression that public health officials weren’t being forthright about vaccine risks.
So, poof! All thimerosal was pulled from childhood vaccines except the multi-dose flu vaccine, since kids getting that would only get amounts below the EPA guidelines for methylmercury (even though, again, thimerosal is ETHYLmercury).
Now fast forward to today. We know a LOT more about ethylmercury: namely, that it’s not as bad as methylmercury and sails through our bodies a lot more quickly. In fact, methylmercury’s half-life is about seven times that of ethylmercury, which does not build up in the body like methylmercury does.
“There is no credible scientific evidence that the use of thimerosal in vaccines presents any risk to human health,” writes Dr. Katherine King in one of today’s Pediatrics articles. Dozens of studies and a massive review at the Institute of Medicine back this up.
Thimerosal in vaccines is not a problem. But what is a problem is thimerosal’s PR image. Again, from one of today’s AAP articles: “Given the complexity of the science involved in making guidelines, the polarity between vaccine advocates and those believing their children have been harmed, the media’s attraction to controversy, and, in retrospect, inadequate follow-up education about the issues to clinicians and the general public, it is not surprising that the steps taken left misunderstanding and anxiety in the United States and concerns in the global public health community.”
Basically, they’re saying, yea, we kinda screwed up with conveying that thimerosal really IS safe after all. We wanted to be over-cautious before, and we were, and that was good, but now we’ve sorta dropped the ball on following through in letting you know that YOU HAVE NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT with the ethylmercury in thimerosal. As Dr. Walter Orenstein today’s AAP articles, “Had the evidence that is available now been available in 1999, the policy reducing thimerosal use would likely have not been implemented. Furthermore, in 2008 the World Health Organization endorsed the use of thimerosal in vaccines.”
But apparently, the WHO’s endorsement can’t overcome thimerosal’s PR image problem in the eyes of the UN. And so the UN is short-sightedly and dangerously trying to ban thimerosal in vaccines.
Well, that just means getting rid of it in flu vaccines (many of which don’t even have thimerosal since they’re single-dose), so what’s the big deal anyway? The big deal is that not all countries got rid of thimerosal in their childhood vaccines. Many high-income countries like the U.S. did – because they could afford to be overly cautious.
But more than 120 middle- and low-income countries – including the developing countries where vaccine-preventable diseases have the highest rates of infection and death – have continued using thimerosal-containing vaccines because the preservative allows them to make cheaper vaccines that withstand less rigorous storage without compromising safety.
Getting rid of thimerosal would mean overhauling vaccine production and storage in those countries, which the WHO estimates would cost more than $300 million for vaccines supplied by UNICEF or the Pan American Health Organization alone. As Dr. King argues, “it is banning thimerosal that would cause an injustice to those living in low- and middle-income countries and relying on these vaccines for effective protection against many harmful infectious diseases.”
Why does this matter to people in the U.S. or in other higher income countries? Because we live in a global world. Vaccines with thimerosal are currently used to immunize about 84 million children across the world every year, saving an estimated 1.4 million lives from vaccine-preventable diseases.That also includes lives saved in developed countries, where a future outbreak could potentially be imported from other countries in which a vaccination program may have ceased following a thimerosal ban.
More simply put: If the UN forces the removal of thimerosal from vaccines, then 84 million children risk not getting vaccinated (and/or vaccinated on time) due to delays in vaccine production or due to a shortage of vaccines because of increasing costs. This, in turn, could (and likely would) mean an increase in vaccine-preventable infections, which will, in turn, kill more children worldwide and risk disease carriage to other countries.
Over and beyond the increases in vaccine-preventable infections and deaths throughout the world, a thimerosal ban in vaccines could also still pose problems for developed countries. In an emergency, as Dr. Orenstein and colleagues argue, not being able to manufacture vaccines with thimerosal could endanger lives during an epidemic if it slows down vaccine production. This proposed UN ban – and the necessity of its removal – matters.
Dr. Cooper and Dr. Katz – again, both pediatricians who were closely involved in the original 1999 decision to pull thimerosal out of vaccines – sum it up best: “The World Health Organization recommendation to delete the ban on thimerosal must be heeded or it will cause tremendous damage to current programs to protect all children from death and disability caused by vaccine-preventable diseases.”
An infant girl suffering from pertussis, a vaccine-preventable disease, struggles to breathe. Those indentations in her ribs are one of the signs of her extreme difficulty drawing breath. Via CDC.
What’s not to fear directly about vaccines? There’s a needle that someone pokes into your child. Your child screams. You tense up. What’s in there? you wonder. Viral or bacterial bits that, in ways that are mysterious to a non-immunologist, will keep your child well when intuition seems to say they ought to make your child sick.
Needles, screaming, microbial bits…these naturally would make any parent blanch. The number of vaccines has added to the fear for at least a decade, leading to non–evidence-based calls to “spread out” the schedule or reduce the number of vaccinations.
In fact, the evidence supports the schedule as it’s recommended.
The fear of vaccination is not new. Since Edward Jenner and his cowpox inoculation at the turn of the 19th century, people have latched onto the fear of the known—those needles!—and unknown—what’s in those things?
What might be considered the first anti-vaccine cartoon appeared in response to Jenner’s proposed inoculation of cowpox to combat smallpox.
The vision of cows growing out of arms is comical, but the reality of possible side effects from today’s vaccines can lead some parents to keep their children away from the doctor’s office. Indeed, this anxiety has done so since the days of the 19th century anti-vaccination leagues, aligned against the widespread use of Jenner’s smallpox vaccine.
The vaccine wars in those days were just as bitter and divisive as they are today, including an 1885 march in England in which anti-vaccination forces carried a child’s coffin and an effigy of Jenner himself. Today’s most fanatical crusaders against vaccines may not carry coffins or effigies, but death threats against those who promote vaccines for public health are not unknown.
The fact that the vast majority of parents overcame those fears and had their children vaccinated has led to some of the greatest public health successes of the 20th century. Thanks to the willingness of people to participate in vaccination programs, smallpox disappeared and polio became a thing of the past in much of the world. Indeed, people in those eras knew, often from personal experience, what these diseases could do—maim and kill—and the fear of those very real outcomes outweighed fears of the vaccinations.
But today, we’re different. In the United States, most of us under a certain age have never witnessed a death from diphtheria or tetanus or smallpox or measles. We haven’t seen a child drained of life as a rotavirus rapidly depletes the molecules she needs to live. Many of us have not witnessed the sounds of pertussis, the vomiting, the exploding lungs in an agony of infant death. Why? Because of vaccines.
This very success has, ironically, led to the resurgence of fear and misgiving about vaccines. No longer weighed against anxiety of death or disability from disease, the fear of vaccines now aligns against the bright picture of a nation of children largely free of life-threatening illness.
Without the collective memory of days when children played on the playground one day and died the next of vaccine-preventable disease, the calculus of parental fear pits only the side effects of vaccines against the healthy child. Vaccination requires intentional agency—parental agreement—to impose on that healthy child the very small risk that vaccines carry. Some parents simply are not comfortable either with that intentionality or that risk.
Feeding this reluctance is the explosion of Internet sites that warn against vaccines or disseminate incorrect information about them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided abundant information about vaccines, including a page devoted to countering erroneous information with facts.
This information will not move the fiercest anti-vaccine groups that lump the CDC in with pharmaceutical companies and others in an alleged conspiracy to harm millions via a money-making vaccine industry. However, it certainly helps concerned parents who simply seek to calm fears, weigh evidence, and make an informed decision about choosing vaccines over the life-threatening illness and compromised public health that result when people don’t vaccinate.
Indeed, these threats to public health have grown considerably with recent large outbreaks of measles and pertussis, including a growing measles outbreak in Europe involving more than 26,000 cases of measles, more than 7000 hospitalizations, and nine deaths as of this writing. The growing threat has led to calls for more stringent requirements for childhood vaccines, including dropping exemptions and requiring that all children be vaccinated over parental objections. This tactic likely would increase vaccination rates among children attending school.
But instead of strong-arming parents into having their children vaccinated, what we really need is a two-fold approach to education. First, we need sober, non-sensationalist reporting from the news media about vaccine-related stories, including stories about side effects, research, and court cases. These articles—and their sensational headlines—are in all likelihood among the prime drivers of the rumor mill against vaccines.
Second, when parents read these stories and turn to a medical professional for input, that input must come as part of a two-way communication between the health professional and the parent, not in lecture format or as patronizing. A little, “I understand your concerns because I’ve had them, too, but here’s what I know that gives me confidence in vaccines,” is considerably better than, “Your child has to be vaccinated, or you can get out of my office.” The onus is on parents to ask with open minds and an understanding that the medical professional in front of them has likely devoted considerable time to gaining the education and expertise necessary to address their questions. Health care isn’t a competition about who knows more. It’s about evidence-based health practices.
As centuries of history attest, no efforts will completely eradicate vaccine fears. Motivations fueling anti-vaccine sentiment that go beyond information gaps range from personal economic benefit to a desire to out-expert the experts to the inertia of fear.
But a careful and persistent information campaign and outreach efforts from medical professionals in the trenches may help keep vaccination rates sufficiently high. Parental investment in gaining information from trained professionals and making decisions based on facts rather than fear is also an indispensable component. To ensure adequate rates requires either these efforts or a resurgence of the deadly diseases that have graphically demonstrated the real balance of the threats at issue here.
Which one would we rather have?
Emily Willingham, Double X Science Editor Twitter, @ejwillingham ———————————————————————— A version of this post originally appeared on the blog of PKIDs, Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases. The mission of PKIDs includes educating the public about infectious diseases and methods of prevention and transmission. Follow PKIDs on Twitter @PKIDs.
The past few weeks have seen big news for vaccines. A bill related to vaccine exemptions was signed into law, a court ruled against a parent’s refusal to vaccinate and a recent study points out the value of vaccinating a household — especially mom — to protect a young infant from pertussis (whooping cough).
The latest news is that Governor Jerry Brown in California signed a bill last Sunday that had been sitting on his desk since September 6 and was the target of a number of rallies by parents who didn’t want to see it pass. Among those fighting the bill was Dr. Bob Sears, who says he walks a middle ground with vaccine policy but in reality tends to flirt with those who fear vaccines and rely on misinformation. Although some parents claimed the bill took away their right to choose whether their children get vaccinated, it actually just ensures they get good medical information before they make that choice.
Photo by Dave Gostisha at sxc.hu.
The bill-now-law, AB 2109, proposed by a pediatrician, requires parents to get a statement signed by a health care practitioner that the parents/guardians have received accurate, evidence-based information about the risks and benefits of vaccines before they can use a personal belief exemption to prevent their children from being vaccinated. This law is a tremendous triumph both for informed consent in medical decisions and for the public health of children in California, which saw a considerable outbreak of pertussis (whooping cough) in 2010. Washington state passed a similar law last year and saw 25 percent drop in exemptions filed. Other states are considering similar laws in a nationwide overall shift toward strengthening exemption requirements.
Why are these laws so important? In short, they kill two birds with one stone: They make it more difficult for parents to casually opt out of vaccines on philosophical grounds (as opposed to religious or medical reasons), and they require parents who want to opt out to at least hear out a pediatrician on accurate information about the actual risks (which do exist) and benefits (there are so many) of immunizations. Parents who are determined not to vaccinate their children can still refuse, but many parents who might have signed those forms out of convenience — it can be easier to sign than to get to the doctor’s office for the shot — will now at least hear the impact a decision not to vaccinate can have on the community. (Hopefully, they go to a health care practitioner other than Dr. Sears, whose stances have gradually been moving further and further toward unscientific and misinformation of those who oppose vaccines.)
It’s also particularly notable that California and Washington are the most recent states to tighten opt-out procedures for parents because they are home to some of the more recent pertussis outbreaks. More on that in a moment.
First, a bit of background on vaccine exemptions: Only 20 states have personal belief exemptions, and until last year, eight of these simply require nothing more than a parent signature. Now that number is down to six. (Other types of requirements for philosophical exemptions include writing out your reasons for exemption, requiring the forms to be notarized, requiring education on the risks/benefits, direct involvement from the state or local health department or renewals.)
All states have medical exemptions for patients who have auto-immune disorders, have proof that their bodies do not respond to immunization, have documented allergic reactions or have other circumstances which make it too risky for them to be immunized. In fact, these are the very people that the rest of the population protects through herd immunity when vaccination rates are up where they should be. All but two states have religious exemptions (Mississippi and West Virginia are the exceptions).
And that brings us to some less covered but still significant news about one state’s ruling on a particular case involving religious exemption. Last week, the U.S. district court in Ohio ruled that one woman’s claim of religious objection was insufficient for her children to be exempted from being vaccinated. Read the whole story here. To be fair, this is a complex case involving far more than vaccines; the mother is clearly neglectful and the overall situation is pretty crappy. However, the fact that the court found “the mere assertion of a religious belief … does not automatically trigger First Amendment protections,” and that “it has long been recognized that local authorities may constitutionally mandate vaccinations” is significant in a state that offers both religious and personal belief exemptions.
The constitutionality of religious exemptions is dubious as well. At the very least, however, anyone seeking any exemption should certainly to see a doctor first to be sure they have accurate information and not simply what they have seen online or heard at the playground. Those who absolutely will not vaccinate in states without exemptions may also opt to home school or send their children to private schools that don’t have requirements. But considering the increasing rates of measles and the increasing epidemics of pertussis, the need for high vaccination coverage in communities is more important than ever.
It is true that the pertussis vaccine is not as effective as the old one used to be, something I wrote about a few weeks ago. It’s also true that pertussis peaks every five years or so, but even taking into account the peaks, the overall rate of cases has been steadily on the move upward. Dr. Offit, the chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a very vocal advocate of vaccines, said he believes that parents’ refusals to vaccinate are playing their own small part in the increase.
“The major contributor is waning immunity. The minor contributor is the choice not vaccinate,” he said. He noted that there are researchers working on the problem, as this Nature article notes (paywall), including attempts to make a better vaccine with more adjuvants, the additives that enhance the body’s immune response to a vaccine. While vaccinated children and adults have been high among the numbers of those getting whooping cough, getting the vaccine remains among the best ways to reduce your risk of contracting it — or of having less rough of a time with it if you do get it. Dr. Offit also pointed out that pregnant women in particular should be sure they get their booster.
Which brings us to the study published last week that relates to the most important reason to get vaccinated, at least from the perspective of preventing deaths — to protect the babies who are too young for the vaccine but most likely to contract it and die from it.
The study, published in the journal Epidemiology last week, looked at how frequently pertussis was transmitted to others within the same household and how effective “cocooning” is. Cocooning is vaccinating all the household members who can get the vaccine for the purpose of protecting young babies who can’t yet be vaccinated for the disease.
They found that transmission rates within the home are high, especially for mothers passing the illness on to their children. Therefore, making sure all pregnant women are vaccinated before their baby arrives would, according to their calculations, cut the risk in half that a baby would contract pertussis. The evidence for sibling vaccination, though weaker, still points to the value of overall cocooning: “Vaccination of siblings is less effective in preventing transmission within the household, but may be as effective overall because siblings more often introduce an infection in the household.”
Indeed, this year, siblings’ bringing home the disease appears more likely than ever in the states experiencing big outbreaks this year. Just how bad are the numbers? Well, 2010 was the last five-year peak, which totaled 27,550 cases. It’s currently September of 2012, and the numbers last reported to the CDC were at 29,834, and that doesn’t even include over 3,700 cases in Minnesota that haven’t been officially reported to the CDC yet. These numbers, which include 14 deaths (primarily of babies under 3 months), may very well end up doubling the 2011 total of 18,719 if they continue at the current rate through the end of the year. It’s the biggest pertussis outbreak since 1959.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the states leading in pertussis cases are also among those that offer personal belief exemptions. Washington, despite their new law, is sitting at 4,190 cases, quadrupling their 2011 count of 965. This is the state where 7.6 percent of parents opted for exemptions (among all grade levels, not just kindergarten) in 2008-09, more than four times the national rate of about 1.5 percent. Minnesota and Wisconsin have similarly high rates and both have personal belief exemptions. The most recent numbers out of Minnesota are 3,748 — they had just 661 cases last year. Wisconsin is leading the nation with 4,640 cases, up from 1,192 in 2011, at last report in the Sept. 28 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (pdf) at the CDC.
But the increases are being seen across the nation, as this CDC map shows. Texas (1,287 cases to date this year), Pennsylvania (1,428 cases) and Colorado (897 cases, though they averaged 158 over the past four years) are among other states with personal belief exemptions (though the Texas one has significant restrictions and hoops to jump through). But it’s clear the decreased effectiveness of the vaccine is playing the biggest role, especially in places like Iowa (1,168 cases) and New York (2,107), neither of which offer personal belief exemptions.
Again, though, a less effective vaccine does not mean a worthless vaccine. It still offers 85 percent protection when you get the shot or the booster, and even as it loses some effectiveness as the years go by, you’re far less likely to have a severe case if you do get the disease. And you’re protecting those around you, including the babies who have only been here a few months and are the most susceptible to catching and dying from the disease.
Bottom line — it’s worth it to get the shot, and to make sure your kids do too.
Opinions expressed in this article do not either necessarily reflect or conflict with those of the DXS editorial team or contributors.
[Tara Haelle (www.tarahaelle.com) is a health and science writer and a photojournalist based in Peoria, IL after years as a Texan, where she earned her undergraduate degrees and MA in journalism at UT-Austin. She’s the mental health editor for dailyRx.com in addition to reporting on pediatrics, vaccines, sleep, parenting, prenatal care and obesity. Her blog, Red Wine & Apple Sauce, focuses on health and science news for moms, and you can follow her on Twitter at @health_reporter and @tarasue. She’s also swum with 9 different species of sharks, climbed Kilimanjaro and backpacked in over 40 countries, but that was in the years of B.C. (Before Children). She finds that two-year-olds are tougher to tussle with than tiger sharks.]