June 28, 2006
A Stern Policy Ensures Safe Shots
In his pre-public career, Steven Stern's law practice focused on assisting the elderly and disabled. It's been "a passion" in his career. The freshman county legislator (D., Huntington) was on the board of the renowned Variety Children's Learning Center in Syosset and it was there he learned about the tragedy of autism.
The stories were all "eerily similar," Stern said. A child was born and seemed normal, then something changed and the youngster withdrew, beginning to show signs of autism.
Spending time with teachers and special needs families at the Learning Center Stern began to research the disease and became one of a growing number of professionals who believe a mercury-based additive in infant's vaccines may be linked to the growing number of autistic kids diagnosed each year. "Although there has been no study producing a definitive direct link, there is compelling research to raise serious and legitimate concern," Stern said.
Given that background, it's no surprise that when he took office this January, the county lawmaker made an effort to prevent the disorder a signature issue. Recently, the legislature passed a local law sponsored by Stern enacting an immediate ban on any level of mercury in vaccines County Health Centers administer to pregnant women and children three and under.
Just a year ago, the legislature unanimously adopted a resolution in favor of a state bill that places limits on the amount of mercury in vaccines. At the time, the local bill's sponsor, Legislator Bill Lindsay, (D.,Holbrook) dubbed the growing number of children with autism an epidemic. Studies have indicated that since 1991 when the Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Drug Administration recommended three additional vaccines for infants, the estimated number of cases surged from a previous 1 in 2500 children to 1 in 166.
Drug companies stopped using the preservative thimerosal back in 2000, but didn't take the mercury-based chemical off the shelves. It's being phased out of use in infant vaccines, but shots with mercury-based preservatives are still given to older kids and exported to other countries. In particular, some flu shots given to kids as young as three still have the suspected toxin.
During discussion of Lindsay's bill last summer, then-Legislator Paul Tonna (R. West Hills) wondered whether the county could enact its own ban in its health centers. The idea languished, without action, until Stern took office this year. "I wanted to do something meaningful right out of the gate," he said.
The legislation is not just a ban, but a call to action, Stern continued. He believes the rising autism cases need to be treated as a health crisis with a two-pronged approach. "We must always consider both services for treatment and methods for prevention." Beyond sponsoring the ban, the lawmaker hopes to work to increase awareness of the potential deleterious effect of vaccines containing mercury.
When Tonna raised the idea of an outright ban last year, Health Department Commissioner Brian Harper expressed concern about the potential shortage of flu vaccine should thimerosal be banned. Stern's bill does include flexibility in the event of a public health crisis. If there is a shortage of flu vaccine, as has happened in the past, he said, his law would permit the use of the vaccines containing mercury on adult patients who are otherwise healthy.