By Andrea Pyka
Due to a supply shortage, the California Department of Health and Human Services (CHHS) issued a six-week exemption beginning Nov. 2 on the use of an influenza vaccine containing thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative.
The presence of thimerosal in vaccines was originally banned in July 2006.
This legislation was lifted, however, in order to give parents with ill children under the age of three access to vaccines. The CHHS issued a statement explaining that the exemption of the mercury-containing vaccine was allowed only as a result of the shortage of mercury-free vaccinations.
Thimerosal has been added to as many as 50 vaccines since the 1930s and is primarily used to prevent fungal and bacterial contamination that causes vaccines to expire.
Kris Calvin, executive director of American Academy of Pediatrics, said that waiving the law will help lower the number of children that die from the flu each year.
According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, that number averages out to about 90 children under the age of five each season.
"I’m very happy with the decision," Calvin said. "It’s only temporary, and it gives families the option [to get the flu shot immediately] or wait the six weeks and receive the thimerosal-free flu vaccine."
However, the effects of thimerosal can vary from brain injury and autoimmune disease to autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Young children are most susceptible to these diseases because their brains are still in the development process.
Jill Rege has studied biomedical treatment ever since her son was diagnosed with autism at a young age. Rege said that although there are no definite effects that can be attributed directly to the presence of mercury in flu vaccines, she won’t allow her children to get flu shots until after the six-week period it will contain traces of mercury.
"Vaccines are very powerful medicines and they change our immune system," said Rege, a member of several online support groups for autism. "Mercury by itself is the second most toxic mineral to mankind."
Rege learned about the possible dangers of mercury when she discovered that her autistic son had high levels of mercury and lead in his system.
While many parents have expressed concern that the ban was lifted, Calvin maintains that thimerosal will not be a major threat to children who need to receive a flu shot.
"There doesn’t seem to be enough evidence that shows that mercury causes problems," Calvin said. "[The vaccine contains] a very tiny amount of mercury," she added, "and a little bit of a preservative can save a person’s life."
Sheri Sobin, patient care coordinator at the UCSC Student Health Center said that, "It’s a pro and con situation. The patient can either die from not receiving a flu shot, or risk exposure to a certain amount of mercury."
Sobin added, however, that the amount of mercury in a flu vaccine is not dangerous to adults and she recommends students to get the vaccine if they can.
The Health Center expects to provide around 500 students and 500 faculty members with the flu shots this season. From Nov. 13-17, students can go to the health center and receive a shot for $20.
For those who have been exposed to the flu virus, there is antiviral medicine available, but Sobin explains that students can save money by getting a flu shot before being exposed to the virus.