As 'maverick MMR doctor' Andrew Wakefield waits for his hearing before the UK's General Medical Council, new research from Columbia University bolsters his claims of a potential link between vaccines and autism.
Not surprisingly, the mercury-based preservative thimerosal has again been fingered as the bad guy after it caused autism-like damage in the brains of laboratory mice.
The mice had been specially bred to have a vulnerability to immune system disorders, and lead researcher Dr Mady Hornig says that thimerosal may cause autism and other conditions in children whose immune systems are already compromised.
The findings, though welcome, raise two concerns: if thimerosal has been the problem all along, the MMR vaccine is not the culprit, as it doesn't contain any of the preservative. Thimerosal is found only in the DTP (diptheria, tetanus and whooping cough) jab, in the heptatis B vaccine and in some flu inoculations. There also has to be a question-mark, on both ethical and scientific grounds, over the use of mice or any other laboratory animal in the name of medical research. The latter, which will interest the GMC more, is a valid concern after several medical studies discovered that animal testing tells us virtually nothing about disease and prevention in humans.
Nonetheless, concerns have been raised about thimerosal in vaccines so many times now that you'd think it would be removed, if only as a PR exercise. The answer goes back to the real, underlying drive of modern medicine: money.
Mercury-free vaccines have a far shorter shelf life, and the health authorities and drug companies are concerned about the costs involved in constantly replenishing supplies. The process of removing mercury from existing stocks is also high.
As it is, mercury - one of the most toxic substances known to man - has been put in vaccines since the 1930s to a level of one part per 10,000. Its use has been stoutly defended by the US's Institute of Medicine, the UK's Committee on Safety of Medicine, Europe's Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products, and by the World Health Organization.
After all, think of the cost if it was found not to be safe.
(Source: Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication; 10.1038/sj.mp.4001522).
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