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WHO worries mercury treaty could affect costs and availability of vaccines


According to the World Health Organization, mercury is one of the top 10 chemicals of public health concern and is highly toxic. Most of the worry is centred on mercury emissions from burning coal, gold mining and people eating mercury-tainted fish. Small amounts of mercury are also found in many products including light bulbs, batteries and thermometers.

In February 2009, the Governing Council of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) agreed on the need to develop a global legally binding instrument on mercury in order to reduce emission of mercury and the related health risks. In July 22 this year, UNEP had distributed a revised text for its comprehensive global treaty on mercury that also included pharmaceuticals (see the sections on related information and news below). 
The next round of talks for the proposed binding treaty begin on Oct. 31 in Nairobi, home base of the UNEP. Two more will follow, with the treaty expected to be completed in 2013.

The mercury-containg preservative Thimerosal is still used in many vaccines against diseases including flu, tetanus, hepatitis B, diphtheria and meningitis, alltogether about 300 million shots worldwide. Highest concentrations of thimerosal are found in those vaccines that are shipped to doctors and clinics in multi-dose vials. In some European countries, including Norway and Sweden, manufacturers have been encouraged to make thiomersal-free vaccines — and no other uses of mercury as a medical preservative are allowed.

WHO's position on the UNEP treaty
The Geneva-based UN health agency is trying to lobby for support of its position that banning thimerosal would be a mistake.

David Wood, a WHO vaccines expert, said health ministries in participating countries may not have been aware of the fact that language that would ban thimerosal has been put into a draft treaty for the coming round of talks, which are being run by the UN Environment Program.

"Countries need to have their positions ready for that discussion," said Wood, co-ordinator of the quality, safety and standards team in WHO's immunizations, vaccines and biologicals department.

"That's part of our concern, that there could be decisions that are made that inadvertently could have a health impact. We just want to make sure that all of the relevant information and the facts are considered."

Wood said there isn't a viable alternative to thiomersal at the moment. If banned, pharmaceuticals would likely have to switch to preservative-free vaccines, which would complicate the supply chain and vaccination campaigns in poor countries, since the injections would have a much shorter shelf life. Costs would also spike since manufacturers would need to reconfigure their factories.

Tim Kasten, head of the UNEP's chemicals branch explained that the fact the language is in the draft doesn't mean it has the support of the majority of countries.

Kasten said both the UNEP and the WHO believe other sources of mercury to be "more significant health threats" than thimerosal, though the final decisions are up to countries.

Activists requesting mercury-free vaccines
Activists requesting mercury-free vaccines also blamed thimerosal in childhood vaccines for rising levels of autism. "We need the vaccine industry to move into the 21st century," said Eric Uram, Executive Director of the Coalition for SafeMinds, an observer to the negotiations. "The treaty looks to phase-out unnecessary mercury use in products by requiring alternatives. We need to make sure all products used are the safest and least toxic possible. The treaty does this by signaling the end of using thimerosal in vaccines."

Related Information

 UNEP: Reducing Risk from Mercury
 UNEP: Mercury publications
 UNEP: New draft text for a comprehensive and suitable approach to a global legally binding instrument on mercury
 FDA: Thimerosal in vaccines
 CDC: Thimerosal in Vaccines: A Joint Statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Public Health Service
 Coalition for Mercury-free Drugs (CoMeD): Calls for Ban on Mercury in Vaccines
 Coalition for Mercury-free Drugs (CoMeD): Documents related to the use of thimerosal  in vccines
 Coalition for Mercury-free Drugs (CoMeD): The Viability of Using Non-mercury Preservatives in Vaccines
 Vaccination News, March 14, 2011: Thimerosal Containing Vaccines, Part I

SafeMinds: Summary of Supportive Science Regarding Thimerosal & Vaccines

 Related EVISA Resources

 EVISA Link database: Industrial use of mercury and its compounds
 EVISA Link database: Toxicity of inorganic mercury compounds
 EVISA Link database: Toxicity of organic mercury compounds
 EVISA Link database: All about thimerosal (thiomersal)

Related News

EVISA News, August 8, 2011: UNEP Global Mercury Treaty May Include Ban on Mercury in Medicine

 EVISA News, June 19, 2011: Committee for Socio-economic Analysis agrees on two draft opinions on restriction proposals for mercury compounds under REACH
 EVISA News, March 17, 2011: Researchers Urge the Removal of Mercury From Flu Shots

 EVISA News, September 25, 2010: The European Chemical Agency (ECHA) calls for comments on reports proposing restrictions on mercury and phenylmercury
 EVISA News, August 16, 2010: Methylmercury: What have we learned from Minamata Bay?
 EVISA News, September 24, 2009: Huge field experiment for assessing human ethylmercury risk starting in october
 EVISA News, July 15, 2009: New Study Finds: Thimerosal Induces Autism-like Neurotoxicity
 EVISA News, May 15, 2008: New study will investigate the influence of environmental factors in autism
 EVISA News, May 3, 2006: Texas Study Relates Autism to Environmental Mercury

last time modified: October 28, 2011

WHO worries for nothing.
..."most strongest"...? The previous poster is not doing any favors for his cause.

The WHO is worried about costs. They needn't. The poorest countries of the world don't vaccinate their citizens anyways, thimerosol or not, affordable or not. The point is moot. Only wealthier developed countries, and humanitarian organization or church missions to poor countries, consume vaccines. These entities are not cost sensitive to the small price increases, if any, from changing preservatives or vial sizes.

Rising health care costs are not substantially affected by the use or discontinuation of thimerosol. Many countries have already stopped using it. The move to ban it is long overdue, toxicological proof or not.

Thimerosal is metabolized by the body into a thiosalicylate and ethyl mercury. This further breaks down into methyl mercury, and can release some elemental mercury into the body before it is excreted in the urine.

...but, again, even without worrying about the potential toxicology, even without worrying about clinical proof or not, the point remains that we don't even need thimerosal any longer. The free market, consumers, demand a different product and will pay for a different product. Give consumers what they want. Give people of the world what they want. Institute the mercury ban. Vaccine cost and availability will not be affected. Quite the opposite, more people may get vaccinated in a thimerosal-free future as their fears are eased.
2011--1-1-  Ghent
WHO - worried about human health or pharma profits ?
It is very interesting to learn that WHO worries about the costs of vaccines or the costs for the modification of pharma production facilities rather than for the continued use of a very toxic mercury compound in pharmaceuticals. You wonder why ? Have a look on who are the vaccination experts within WHO - mostly representatives of the involved pharma industry.
2011--1-0-  Klaus Welther
Reducing mercury exposure of humans
The aim of the UNEP Mercury treaty is to reduce the mercury exposure of humans and animals by reducing the anthropogenic emission of mercury into the environment. Part of the emitted mercury will be transformed to organic mercury and will be accumulated within the food web, finally reaching humans via their food uptake. Organic mercury compounds belong to the most strongest neurotoxins known. To except the direct injection of organic mercury into the body of humans via pharmaceuticals counteracts the aims of the treaty ! A strong toxin does not become an insignificant health risk just because pharma industry does not like the idea to search for an alternative preservative !
2011--1-0-  CriticalObserver

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