by Baskut Tuncak
Last week, the Associated Press reported that the international treaty being negotiated to address mercury pollution could ban vaccines that use mercury as a preservative. The preservative, thiomersal (also known as thimerosal), is widely used in vaccines that are distributed in sub-Saharan Africa and other regions where refrigeration may not be available. The AP article included quotes from experts that an absolute ban on thiomersal would be “ridiculous” and “a terrible idea.”
The only problem with the article’s premise is that the chance of governments agreeing to an absolute ban on mercury vaccines is about as good as the Tea Party endorsing President Obama’s reelection and demanding that the United States ratify the Kyoto global warming treaty:
First, governments haven’t even agreed yet whether they’ll use the draft text as the starting point for their negotiations (though they’re widely expected to do so next week in Nairobi). As it stands, the text is a compilation of all views that have been expressed to-date by individual countries. Listing mercury vaccines is an idea that a few have suggested, but which many oppose.
Second, the reason no exemptions have yet been proposed for mercury vaccines in the draft treaty is because debate over the text hasn’t begun yet. But when it does, many governments will insist that liberal exemptions for mercury vaccines must be written into the text, even while they continue to block vaccines from being listed at all.
Third, even if governments agree to consider mercury vaccines for the treaty, the majority will insist that any restrictions be phased in gradually, probably over a long or even indefinite amount of time. Look at the example of DDT. Scientists and health experts have long agreed that DDT is nasty stuff, but the Stockholm Convention, which bans similar chemicals, still allows DDT use for preventing malaria. Stockholm was adopted 10 years ago, and there’s no sign yet that DDT will ever be subject to an absolute ban.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, decisions in the mercury treaty negotiations are made only by consensus. That means that any country can block any treaty provision it doesn’t like from being adopted. That’s why these kinds of treaties tend to be negotiated to the lowest common denominator, and why the mercury treaty isn’t going to ban mercury as a preservative in vaccines until all countries are confident that non-mercury alternatives are cost-effective and globally available.
One might have expected a reasonably seasoned AP reporter to have undertaken the basic research needed to reflect an understanding of these basic points. Instead, we got an article setting up a bogus straw-man “absolute ban” of mercury vaccines. While it may provoke a lot of outrage towards WHO, UNEP, and health and environment treaties in general, it’s no more realistic than that Tea Party Obama endorsement.
Makes one wonder where the idea for the article came from in the first place…