Global Justice and Vaccine Policy

I definitely was piqued by the editorial titled “Global Justice and the Proposed Ban on Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines.” (Pediatrics 2013; 131: 154-156) I wondered how vaccine policy could affect global justice.

In high-income countries, vaccines have shifted increasingly to preservative-free single-dose vials.  Whereas in poorer countries, vaccines have continued to rely on multidose vials which frequently contain thimerosal as a preservative.  The move away from thimerosal which contains ethyl mercury “was a precautionary move in response to theoretical concerns, now known to be unfounded.”

Currently, a multinational environmental treaty is close to finalization and this treaty aims to restrict human and environmental exposure to mercury.  The World Health Organization and the broader public health community have recommended that thimerosal be exempt from the treaty to avoid disruption in the global vaccine supply.  However, some nongovernmental groups have objected to the use of thimerosal in poorer countries when it has been phased out in wealthier countries.

Why Thimerosal Should be Exempt from this Ban:

  • No credible scientific evidence of any risk to human health from thimerosal
  • Vaccines with thimerosal are used in >120 countries to immunize ~84 million children every year.  It is estimated that these vaccines save 1.4 million children every year.
  • Potential vaccines affected include hepatitis B, tetanus, and diptheria-tetanus-pertutsis
  • “Although there are other preservatives…, none are yet viable alternatives to thimerosal”

The individuals and organizations who have opposed thimerosal come from wealthier countries and would not suffer the consequences of a potential ban.  “Where’s the justice in that?”

Related references:

  • Pediatrics 2013; 131: 149-151. Public health experts recommend the ongoing use of thimerosal as a preservative.
  • Pediatrics 2013; 131: 152-153.  Provides context for previous AAP joint statement on thimerosal in 1999.

Related blog entry:

Vaccine successes and ambitions | gutsandgrowth