Sunday, May 1, 2011

I'm Mad, Part One: Mercury/Thimerosal

New and expecting parents are bombarded with information about all the bad things they'll need to keep their children away from: BPA in bottles, parabens in lotions and bath supplies, phthalates and PVC in toys and teethers. It can be overwhelming. And yet the science linking these three chemicals to negative health effects is thus far nearly conclusive (I will link to CDC studies on these chemicals at the end of the article). Luckily, phasing them out of your life is a risk-free and mostly hassle-free endeavor. Most if not all baby bottles today are free from BPA; in some states, including Minnesota, phthalates are not allowed in children's products. Parabens are easily identifiable in personal products (look for methylparaben, butylparane, propylparaben) and can be avoided. There is no trade-off. You are not putting your child at risk by choosing a BPA-free bottle.

So after crossing those things off the list, new and expecting parents often turn to vaccines. And many of them make the same mistake I made as a new parent. They turn to Google, the place where eminent scientific mind Jenny McCarthy says she got her "degree."The first sites we find are not Every Child By Two and the Centers for Disease Control, the Gates Foundation and Partners in Health. Instead, we find sites like the so-called National Vaccine Information Center, which masquerades as an impartial watchdog agency (hence the "org" in its web address), and, which claims that vaccines cause all sorts of diseases and allergies. For the neophyte, it is nearly impossible to sort the wheat from the chaff here, and the effort to do so can be absolutely terrifying.

You will hear lots of terrible things about vaccines. Nearly all of them are lies. The word "lie" is inflammatory, but I use it here deliberately. It is a word, and a characterization, you will not see on public health websites, from the CDC, from Every Child by Two, or any of the sites of organizations whose job it is to study the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Even though they know this is true. 

But we're parents who have been on both sides of this debate. We've been scared, too. But after looking at the science and putting things in perspective--something the anti-vax community will not do, perhaps because they are incapable, perhaps because their science literacy is so low--we got mad. 

I'm mad about lots of things. We all are. In an effort to save some new parents the same heartache, worry, anxiety that we suffered as we tried to figure out the vaccine thing--and to keep parents from delaying their children's immunizations out of fear, as a few of us did before we understood our mistake, putting our kids' lives at risk in the process--we are initiating a series of "I'm Mad" posts. These posts will address some of the most volatile but common claims anti-vaxxers make when trying to scare new parents out of immunizing their children. Today we start with the thimerosal question.

Claim: Thimerosal in vaccines causes/caused autism. If it doesn't, it's still toxic. 

I worried about thimerosal for a while. People told me it was straight-up mercury being injected into my child's body. Mercury is poison, right? It's what is causing all this autism, because although thimerosal has been used a preservative in vaccines for decades, without the attendant rise in autism, our kids just get so many more immunizations now, right? 

Well--except that thimerosal hasn't been in vaccines since 2000/2001 and autism rates continue to skyrocket. I shouldn't have to point out, but I will, that this is the exact opposite effect of what we'd see if thimerosal caused autism, as anti-vaxxers long claimed. I later learned that the preservative had been taken out of vaccines by the government and public health authorities not because of any toxicity concerns but because parents believed the Wakefield study and they feared vaccination rates would fall if this gesture was not made. Thimerosal does not cause autism (Immunizations and Autism: A Review of the Literature in the Canadian Journal of Neuroscience)

Mercury poisoning? That sounds scary. Except that your typical tuna sandwich contains much more mercury than a single vaccine. Actually, the mercury in tuna is scarier, because it is methyl mercury, a serious neurotoxin, while the mercury in vaccines is ethyl mercury, which is, even at high doses, far less toxic than methyl mercury (but in the doses we're talking about in vaccines are literally traces anyway). Bottom line: mercury poisoning is an impossibility when it comes to vaccines, even if you were to get the whole course of childhood vaccines (back when they contained thimerosal) in a single week.

But here's the main point that goes overlooked. Right now, vaccines are nearly the lowest-risk medicine we have available to us. The reports of adverse effects--which include fever and soreness at the injection site--are so low compared to the number of doses administered, that they are considered one of the safest, if not the single safest, medicine in the world. And their benefits are this: they keep your child alive. It is as simple as that.

Too few of us parents have seen measles. I know of no one who has seen polio, except for people who have lived in Afghanistan and India, where polio is still endemic. Endemic. This means it is "regularly" found in a population. Know anyone who travels to India? Might there be any children at your local school who have Indian relatives? I know there are at least eight in my child's preschool alone. I hasten to add that their parents didn't think twice about immunizing them, because of their travels and because they, too, had seen these diseases take lives when they were growing up. Is there a reason why your husband or wife might be required to get a polio shot if he/she hasn't gotten one if she/he is deployed to Afghanistan? This stuff is a plane ride away. And it is not theoretical.

Haven't seen what Tetanus looks like? Here is a photo of a child with tetanus. Here is a photo of a child who suffered polioMeasles looks like this. Is it worth forgoing vaccines against diseases like this, and many others, that are absolutely extant in our world and either in this country (or in my case, my state) or a plane ride away, carried home by an unwitting traveler much like the toddler who brought measles back to Minnesota from Kenya this winter, because of fear of a toxicity that simply doesn't exist? It's something to consider. For me, it became an easy answer when considered this way. 

Science-Based Medicine offers a look at the claims of toxicity of vaccines that you are likely to hear as you explore the vaccine question. We owe it to ourselves to read the post in its entirety before making any decisions about whether or not to get on board with some of the more inflammatory claims we still hear from people who don't vaccinate their children and don't want you to vaccinate either. 

You can also get the word from these organizations. Below are links to their statements on the safety/toxicity of thimerosal. Again, this is really a moot point, as no childhood vaccines, save the multi-dose vial version of the flu shot, contain any thimerosal. But it's a point worth making, as it demonstrates the ways anti-vax proponents will manipulate and misinterpret the science to new parents, hoping that most of them won't bother to look into their claims.

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