August 6, 2004   E-mail story    Print 

Drug Firm Fights Ban on Vaccine Preservative
By Myron Levin, Times Staff Writer

Pharmaceutical giant Aventis-Pasteur is trying to rally opposition to
state legislation that would bar use of a mercury-based preservative
in vaccines administered to infants and pregnant women in California.

In a late charge against the bill, Aventis has recruited an important
ally - the California Conference of Local Health Officers, which
represents chief medical officers of all 58 California counties.

  the group's president, Dr. Scott Morrow, acknowledged this week that
the group decided to oppose the ban after being contacted by Aventis.

Already approved by the Assembly and awaiting a vote in the Senate,
the bill by Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) would prohibit
expectant mothers and children younger than 3 from receiving routine
immunizations containing more than trace amounts of thimerosal, a
preservative that is half ethyl mercury.

The proposal reflects mounting concern about exposure to mercury in
various forms. And it comes against a backdrop of charges that
mercury, a neurotoxin, has contributed to a surge in autism and other
neurological ailments in children.

The vaccine industry and many public health officials say there is no
proof of any harm to children from the small amounts of mercury in

Even so, manufacturers in recent years have voluntarily eliminated
thimerosal or reduced it to trace levels in routine pediatric
vaccines. The flu vaccine made by Aventis - the lone supplier of flu
vaccine for children younger than 2 - is the only major exception.

Aventis offers its vaccine with or without the preservative. Under
terms of the bill, it would have two years to convert to entirely
thimerosal-free flu vaccine.

After months of taking no position on the Pavley bill, Aventis is
raising the specter of shortages that could leave the state vulnerable
to a mass outbreak of flu. In a statement to The Times, Aventis warned
that the bill "would curtail the access of Californians to needed
vaccine and undermine public confidence in one of healthcare's most
effective prevention tools."

Earlier this year, however, an Aventis spokesman said the company
should be able to produce enough thimerosal-free vaccine to fill all
orders, given sufficient notice. Aventis representatives did not
return calls seeking clarification.

Rick Rollens, a Granite Bay resident with an autistic son and an
activist in issues of vaccine safety, described Aventis' stand as
indefensible and "a bully tactic by a large pharmaceutical company."

Aventis previously stayed on the sidelines, leaving the state chapters
of the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Family
Physicians to oppose the bill.

But both groups dropped their opposition when Pavley agreed to
amendments extending the compliance date for flu vaccine to July 2006
and providing for suspension of the ban in a public health emergency.

Aventis and the health officers declared their opposition in letters
to Pavley's office in the last week.

The conference of health officers' letter echoed Aventis' warning that
the bill could have dire consequences in the event of an influenza

In response to inquiries by The Times, Morrow said he discovered that
Aventis sought the group's help on the bill - something he said he
didn't know at the time he signed the letter.

"I'm very disappointed," he said. "It feels to me very disingenuous."

Nonetheless, Morrow said, his group has taken the right "position
regardless of how it came to us."


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