What’s in your H1N1 flu vaccine?
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Speaking by phone from his office, Bhakdi cited the higher rate of heart problems when 1.4 million U.S. soldiers were vaccinated for smallpox before the 2003 Iraq war.
Soldiers who received the vaccine had almost 7.5 times the rate of heart inflammation of nonvaccinated personnel, according to a study by U.S. military medical researchers in 2004 in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
“Unexpected serious adverse effects thus may follow in the wake of a general vaccination program,” Bhakdi’s paper said.
Yet health authorities and doctors are urging people with heart problems to get the H1N1 vaccine on a priority basis and do not appear to be monitoring them for possibly elevated risks, he said.
Shaw is also concerned about Canada’s monitoring of the side effects of vaccinations, calling the system “flimsy”.
What especially worries Shaw is the possibility of longer-term side effects from the vaccine. Most vaccine safety studies monitor patients for a few days or, at most, several months.
That isn’t enough, Shaw says. With some vaccines, the most serious reactions have taken years to surface. “Neurological problems don’t happen overnight,” he said. “It took five to 10 years to see the bulk of the Gulf War–syndrome outcomes.”
One of the best examples involves a controversial ingredient present in the H1N1 vaccine: thimerosal. Thimerosal is a form of mercury used in some vaccines as a preservative. Drug makers agreed to phase it out of most vaccines after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found in 1999 that mercury levels in children who had gotten multiple shots often exceeded safety levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Nonetheless, thimerosal still remains in many flu vaccines.
Controversy has raged for years about whether or not thimerosal is behind soaring childhood autism rates. While that debate continues, a 2008 study in the U.K. journal Toxicological and Environmental Chemistry found that boys who were given a vaccine containing thimerosal were nine times more likely to have developmental problems than unvaccinated boys.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says on its Web site that thimerosal is safe and that the amount in the H1N1 vaccine is below Health Canada’s daily safety limit set for mercury. “There’s significantly less mercury in the vaccine than you would find in a can of tuna fish,” the site states.
In fact, the amount of mercury in the nonadjuvanted H1N1 vaccine does actually exceed the daily safety level for pregnant women. Health Canada has established the safe dietary level of mercury for pregnant women at 0.2 micrograms (millionths of a gram) per kilo of body weight. The nonadjuvanted H1N1 vaccine contains 25 micrograms of mercury.
Simple math tells us an average Canadian pregnant woman—weighing 80 kilograms at term—gets about 56 percent more than the daily safe level of mercury when given a dose of the nonadjuvanted vaccine. By the EPA’s stricter standards, that same dose is actually triple its daily safe level.
What’s more, Shaw notes, those daily safety levels were set for consumption of mercury in food, not for injection directly into the body. Injecting a neurotoxin like mercury has much more impact than eating it, he said.
Squalene is another controversial component of the swine-flu vaccine. It’s an oil found in animal livers and is used as an adjuvant in vaccines and also as a moisturizer in cosmetic products. It is primarily gotten from shark livers—a fact that has upset conservation groups worried about endangered shark populations. Some companies, like Unilever and L’Oréal, have agreed to stop using squalene in cosmetic products.
Debate has raged for years about whether or not squalene is responsible for Gulf War syndrome. Most research suggests that’s not the case, but in recent years much more solid evidence has found squalene can cause autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis in animals.
Still other questions have been raised about polysorbate 80, another component of the H1N1 vaccine adjuvant. Studies have found it can cause severe allergic reactions and hypersensitivity.
In the end, we might only get a good picture of the vaccine’s side effects long after swine flu has run its course. Then again, with Canada’s lax monitoring system for side effects, we may never know which was worse.