Geneva, 18 January 2013 - Delegates at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) today recognised the safety of thiomersal – a mercury-based vaccine preservative – and the critical role it plays in global health - by excluding it from a treaty on the release of mercury into the environment.
Thiomersal has been used widely since the 1930s to prevent bacterial and fungal contamination of multi-dose vials of vaccines. Of the 2.5 million deaths prevented every year through vaccines, 1.4 million are prevented because of thiomersal-preserved vaccines.
However, the fact that thiomersal contains small amounts of ethylmercury has warranted its inclusion in the UNEP treaty negotiations, which were set up as part of an effort to rid the world of the risks posed to human health and the environment by mercury. Unlike methylmercury, which is known to make its way through the food chain and accumulate in the body, ethylmercury is broken down by the body and quickly flushed out within a matter of days.
Recognising this, the treaty text specifically excludes “vaccines containing thiomersal as preservatives,” and instead focuses on restricting the major sources of mercury releases into the environment.
This view has been commended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and, now that the draft text has finally been endorsed, the GAVI Alliance also applauds this decision. GAVI would also like to thank its Board members for their collective efforts in helping to avert a serious risk to GAVI’s mission.
Protecting access to vaccines came as the result of a strong partnership between WHO, UNICEF, GAVI and civil society organisations to inform country delegates, who predominantly came from ministries of environment, of the benefits of thiomersal. By facilitating communication between ministries of health and ministries of environment, strong statements were made by delegates about the essential role of thiomersal-containing vaccines in protecting human health.
Advocates from around the world, including the Communication for Development Centre, the International Pediatric Association, PATH and other members of the GAVI Civil Society Constituency, played a vital role in achieving this outcome for global health. More than 140 countries and 900 delegates participated in the final negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland.
Please see a NY Times editorial from Seth Berkley highlighting the importance of this issue.