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Merk's infant vaccine stirs controversy
Company said it had stopped using mercury preservative but kept distributing stockpile for two more years LOS ANGELES TIMES

Merck & Co. continued to supply infant vaccine containing a mercury preservative for two years after declaring that it had eliminated the chemical.

In September 1999,amid concern about the risks of mercury in childhood vaccines,Merck announced that the Food and Drug Administration had approved a preservative-free version of its hepatitis B vaccine.

"Now,Merck's infant vaccine line is free of all preservatives," a Merck news release said. But Merck continued to distribute vaccine containing thimerosal until October 2001,according to an FDA letter sent in response to a congressional inquiry.

Merck executives confirmed the details in the FDA letter but defended the accuracy of the Merck announcement in 1999, saying the company had begun to produce preservative-free vaccine.

Merck continued to supply the preservative-containing version "during the transition period to ensure an adequate supply of vaccine to help protect the nation's children," said spokeswoman Mary Elizabeth Blake. She said package labels disclosed which lots of vaccine were preservative-free. Parent groups and a congressional critic of U.S. vaccine policy are crying foul. "As far as the world knew,the product coming out of Merck had no thimerosal in it," said Sallie Bernard,executive director of Safe Minds,a group concerned about childhood exposure to mercury,a neurotoxin. Parents and doctors who wanted a thimerosal-free product "would be totally confused," she said.

Rep. David Weldon (R-Fla.), a physician,said that what Merck did was "misleading." "You had people literally into 2002 getting shots with mercury, having been told it was all taken out in 1999," he said. "There should have been a much more cautious announcement that we're going to eliminate the mercury over time." The FDA letter was sent to Weldon in June 2003 in response to his questions.

Thimerosal,which is nearly 50 percent ethyl mercury,has largely been eliminated from most routine childhood vaccines, although it is present in most flu shots. It had been widely used as a sterilizing agent to prevent bacterial contamination from repeated insertion of needles into multidose vials of vaccine.

More than 4,200 parents have filed claims in the federal Vaccine Injury Compensation Program,alleging that their children suffered autism or other neurological disorders from mercury in their shots.

Vaccine makers and many health officials say there is no credible evidence of harm from the small doses of mercury once widely present in children's shots. They cite a report last May by the prestigious Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences,which concluded that available evidence "favors rejection of a causal relationship" between vaccines and autism.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Co. newspaper.

Copyright © 2005, Newsday, Inc.

Last Updated ( Feb 08, 2006 at 08:04 PM )