Mercury in vaccines?

What you need to know before getting that flu shot

Health roundup There’s been a lot of talk about thimerosal in flu vaccines lately. So before you take your kids to the doctor, here are some questions to consider before you get that shot.

Q: What is thimerosal? Why does the flu vaccine contain thimerosal?

A:Thimerosal is a preservative used to prevent contamination in the vaccine. Great, right? Here’s the problem: Thimerosal is almost 50 percent ethylmercury. Yep, mercury, a poison. Not so great.

Despite concerns to the contrary, the official word is there is no evidence thimerosal has any negative effects on kids, says Dr. Stanford Shulman, head of infectious diseases at Children’s Memorial Hospital.

Q:Didn’t Illinois ban thimerosal? Why am I still hearing about it?

A:Under state law, vaccine administered here should contain no more than 1.25 micrograms of mercury per dose. By 2008, none should contain any mercury.

"We’re exposed to mercury so much in our daily lives, in our food and in our atmosphere, that we just want to reduce that amount as much as we can," says Melaney Arnold, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Q:If it’s such a big deal, why not ban it completely?

A:Because it’s more expensive to make vaccines without the preservative, says Shulman.

Q: I’m hearing a lot about the link between thimerosal and autism. Should I be worried?

A: Both Arnold and Shulman insist there is no scientific proof linking thimerosal and autism. However, Barbara Mullarkey, president of the Illinois Vaccine Awareness Coalition, says there are scientists who disagree. "I just think that when there are parties saying opposing things the government needs to err on the side of caution," says Mullarkey.

Q: So should I get my kids vaccinated or not?

A:Arnold says flu vaccines given to children 3 and under have no thimerosal. And Shulman says, the benefits of getting vaccinated outweigh any potential risks.

If you’re still unsure, Mullarkey recommends asking for the vaccine package insert in advance. The insert lists ingredients and known adverse reactions. Then it’s up to you as a parent to weigh the risks of the vaccine against the risks of the disease. Farah Mohd Alkaf

Shortage delays shot schedule

If your 11- or 12-year-old is due for a back-to-school checkup, you may find they’re getting one less shot than recommended.

They’d normally get the meningococcal conjugate vaccine, but because of a shortage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending the shot instead be given to high school and college students.

"The peak age group [to contract] this disease is 16 to 18," says Dr. Julia McMillan, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "The reason for the 11- to 12-year-old recommendation was to provide early protection through the later at-risk years and because kids in this age group are still usually going to the doctor on a regular basis."

Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria that infect the bloodstream and the linings of the brain and spinal cord, according to the CDC. The disease often begins with symptoms that can be mistaken for common illnesses, such as the flu. It is particularly dangerous because it progresses rapidly and can kill within hours.

Still, parents of tweens should not panic. "This is an incredibly rare disease," McMillan says. "Eleven to 12 is felt to be a good time [to receive the vaccine] but that doesn’t mean it’s the riskiest time."

Parents of children whose vaccines are delayed should remember to check back in a year or so to see if the vaccine is available. And doctors will immunize students entering high school for the disease if they missed the earlier vaccine. Liz DeCarlo

Don’t delay, breed today

A recent study of DNA in sperm has found a higher risk for genetic defects as men age.

Led by Andrew Wyrobek at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Barbara Eskenazi of the University of California at Berkeley, the oldest men studied had five times as many sperm with high levels of fragmentation in their DNA, which is associated with infertility. The sperm also were more likely to carry a mutation that causes dwarfism in children.

According to Wyrobek, the results were important in creating awareness that both men and women have biological clocks. "There are consequences to delaying fatherhood," he says. "Women are not the only ones responsible for bearing a healthy child."

While the study has caused a stir in the medical community, Wyrobek is firm about putting things into perspective.

"There are hundreds of genes known to cause birth defects, and these are only two of them," he says. "This is by no means the end, just the beginning."

Farah Mohd Alkaf


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