The Department of Health (DOH) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) officials yesterday hit back at media and consumer groups who have questioned the safety of influenza vaccines that contain mercury.
Following extensive front-page coverage in the United Evening News linking flu vaccines containing thimerosal (a mercury-containing organic compound) with autism, the CDC have issued a complaint to the paper.
Other media outlets have since followed up on the story.
The Consumers' Foundation also held a news conference yesterday calling on parents of autistic children who have received vaccines containing thimerosal to contact the foundation in order to get help suing the government for compensation.
"The government should not be using our children as lab rats," said Cheng Jen-hung (程仁宏) of the Consumers' Foundation.
"The vaccines we provide come with the government's approval and guarantee," DOH Chief Hou Sheng-mou (侯盛茂), said. "Should anybody be harmed by them, the government will of course take full responsibility."
"But who will take responsibility for the harm caused to children because their parents didn't have them vaccinated?" Hou said.
Free influenza vaccines given to first and second grade students use thimerosal as a preservative. While health officials say that there is no scientific evidence supporting such claims, speculation linking autism and thimerosal have emerged again and again in the news.
The United Evening News led the media coverage with a front-page story on Monday with the headline "Do you know there is mercury in flu vaccines?"
The entire third page was also devoted to the topic, including a story entitled "Mercury is poison, who will be responsible if children are sensitive to it?"
"Media reports have had an effect on parents' attitudes," said Ting Chi-wen (丁奇文), a pediatrician at Shu-tien Clinic. "They do not want to take even a small risk with their child."
Most parents in her practice opt to pay for mercury-free vaccines at a cost of around NT$500 over the free vaccines provided by the government, Ting said.
However, she said she is worried that a percentage of parents are choosing to delay vaccination of their children altogether as they weigh up the costs and benefits.
"I tell parents to choose the mercury-free vaccine if they want peace of mind, but the important thing is that the child is vaccinated," Ting said.
The Sept. 27 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine published an article on thimerosal exposure that did not find a causal association between thimerosal and a deficit in neuropsychological function at the age of seven to 10 years.
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