Vaccination recommendations may add to mercury debate

Dean Olsen

New recommendations from the federal government that all children receive flu shots should help more kids and their families avoid getting sick this fall and winter, a Springfield, Ill., infectious-disease specialist says.

“Influenza is a common problem in school-age children,” said Dr. Subhash Chaudhary, a professor of pediatrics at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. “We know this vaccine works.”

As flu season approaches, it’s unclear whether the suggestions of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will lead to more demand for flu shots.

“It’s way too early to tell,” said Jim Stone, director of the Sangamon County, Ill., Department of Public Health.

But because flu shots routinely contain trace amounts of mercury in the form of the preservative thimerosal, the CDC recommendations may prompt more debate about whether childhood vaccinations are connected with complications such as autism and whether kids really need flu shots.

“What is the risk, and what is the benefit?” asked Dr. David Ayoub, a Springfield radiologist and self-taught expert on vaccines, mercury and the increasing number of children diagnosed with autism.

He said studies he has reviewed indicate the benefit of the flu vaccine — even among the very young and very old, the two groups most at risk of flu-related complications — is overblown.

And in children, he said, “The risk of vaccines is unknown because the studies are just that poorly designed. And that’s not just my opinion; that’s a lot of people’s opinion.”

CDC officials view the situation — and the weight of scientific evidence — much differently.

Ayoub and other critics say they know the reason: The agency and other federal health officials are unfairly influenced by the pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines.

The CDC previously recommended that children get flu shots from 6 months through age 4, or if children of any age had chronic diseases or lived with people who had chronic health conditions.

CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted this year to broaden the recommendation for children.

“Studies have shown that healthy children bear a significant burden from influenza disease and are at increased risk of needing influenza-related care,” a CDC news release said. “In addition, there is evidence showing that reducing influenza transmission among children has the potential to reduce influenza among their household contacts and within the community.”

Ayoub said, “The CDC makes it appear as if there’s a consensus of opinion in the science. I don’t think there’s consensus whatsoever. I think the majority of studies fail to show a substantial benefit among kids.”

CDC officials expect the percentage of children 12 through 17 who get flu shots to rise from 28 percent to 36 percent as a result of the new recommendation. Overall, the CDC is suggesting that 30 million more American children of all ages be vaccinated — a 75 percent increase.

A 2004 Institute of Medicine report said scientific studies have failed to demonstrate a conclusive link between childhood vaccines and autism. But Ayoub said the IOM report was based on “junk science.”

“The IOM is a sham,” he said. “The wool has been pulled over the eyes of the majority of journalists, of citizens and of doctors — by far, doctors.”

Chaudhary said most doctors don’t have time to analyze every scientific study, but the CDC is more worthy of the public’s trust than Ayoub’s biased conclusions.

Ayoub noted that thimerosal, which drug companies voluntarily removed from routine childhood vaccinations in 2001, remains in most flu vaccines.

Because the CDC has recommended flu shots for larger and larger groups of the pediatric population since then, Ayoub said children who get flu shots every year eventually will be injected with about half of the thimerosal they used to get from other immunizations.

Thimerosal, he said, has “sort of ‘back-doored’ its way back into the population. I would say the majority of pediatricians still think it’s out of all vaccines.”

Karen McMahon, chief of immunizations for the Illinois Department of Public Health, took issue with Ayoub’s statements. But regardless, she said the public should put its trust in “the scientists and the immunization experts in this country” when it comes to any risks posed by thimerosal.

Stone said critics of vaccines in general are rare in Springfield, but public health officials in other parts of the country have blamed a growing number of measles infections on parents who won’t allow their children to be vaccinated.

“I don’t see an inordinate amount of skepticism in Sangamon County or central Illinois in general,” Stone said.

Thimerosal-free flu vaccine is available, but it’s more expensive to acquire, and there’s not a lot of demand for it, Stone said. Private doctors’ offices also may have it in stock.

The local health department has 600 doses of thimerosal-free vaccine available to anyone who requests it. But last year, the health department acquired 800 doses, and only 200 people asked for it, Stone said.

The charge is $32 per dose — the same charge for vaccine with thimerosal. Adults and children who are covered by Medicare, Medicaid or All Kids can get flu vaccine at no charge.

Petersburg resident Michelle Petersen won’t be getting flu shots for her three sons. The oldest, 9-year-old Tyler Guinan, has autism, and Michelle believes the vaccinations he received as an infant brought on the condition by damaging his brain.

“I believe vaccinations, honestly, have done no good,” said Petersen, 30, a nurse’s aide. “I may sound crazy, but I’m not vaccinating my children.”

But Springfield resident Michelle O’Hara, 35, said she will continue to get annual flu shots for herself and her two sons, ages 20 months and 3 years, because she trusts the recommendations of their doctor, J. Eric Bleyer, a specialist in internal medicine and pediatrics.

O’Hara, a sales and service associate at a bank, said she believes flu shots have helped her kids avoid getting sick, and she doesn’t know and doesn’t care whether the shots contain thimerosal.

She said her kids are healthy, and she wouldn’t think of denying them recommended vaccinations.

“You would think that you would do everything in your power to protect your kids,” she said. “It’s like having a seatbelt for your health.”

State Journal-Register writer Dean Olsen can be reached at 788-1543.