The World Health Organization is trying to fend off an effort to include the mercury derivative Thimerosal used in vaccines from being banned in a global treaty on mercury currently under negotiation.
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
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last time modified: October 28, 2011