Experts stress vaccine safety

As questions resurface about thimerosal's link to autism, the CDC's director urges parents to continue to immunize their children.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted Aug. 8, 2005

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Washington -- Childhood vaccines are safe, and they remain vitally important to children's health, federal officials and physician groups reiterated at a Capitol Hill briefing July 19, even as a rally was readied for the next day by groups concerned about a long-feared link between autism and the vaccine preservative thimerosal.

For most children with autism, the cause is still a mystery, said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding, MD, MPH. However, studies of thousands of children have not turned up any evidence that thimerosal is the cause, she said. "The best evidence we have is that vaccines save lives."

Dr. Gerberding urged parents to have their children immunized. People may have forgotten the devastation such diseases as polio, measles, mumps or rubella caused because those diseases have been virtually eliminated through widespread use of vaccines, she said.

However, if enough parents decline to immunize their children, those diseases could return, she warned.

In addition, thimerosal has been virtually eliminated from most childhood vaccines and is only found in some flu vaccine and in trace amounts picked up from the cleaning of vaccine manufacturing equipment, she said.

"We need more research to investigate the actual causes of autism, yet it would be a shame and a disservice to the health of our children if we let vaccines take the blame for this tragic and little-understood issue," said AMA Trustee Robert M. Wah, MD, speaking at the briefing.

The day after the briefing, several groups rallied on Capitol Hill to express opposition to the use of thimerosal in any children's vaccines and to advocate for more research on possible harm that had already resulted from the preservative.

Among those speaking were Rep. David Weldon, MD (R, Fla.) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who have introduced legislation to require that all vaccines for young children and pregnant women have no more than 1 microgram of mercury per injection.

Dr. Weldon also recently wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt to stress the need for continued research on the issue.

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