January 03, 2007

Health Dept. Honchos Seek Infant Options

It's not about the money. In the wake of passionate denouncement by members of the legislature on both sides of the political aisle, representatives for County Executive Steve Levy have insisted that his measure calling for the continued use of immunizations that contain thimerasol — an additive some believe may be linked to the rise in cases of autism — is not about economics. In fact, Levy spokesman Ed Dumas said the measure was prompted by a request from county health department officials. He characterized assertions made to the contrary in a press release distributed by North Fork Legislator Ed Romaine as "repugnant" and "grotesque."

Discussed in the legislature's Health and Human Services Committee last month, the measure would have allowed the use of vaccines that contain thimerosal. Thimerosal contains mercury, which has been linked to birth defects, as well as kidney and nervous system damage, plus autism in children. In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the United States Public Health Service recommended the swift removal of mercury additives from all vaccines, according to Romaine's release.

In 2005, Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay introduced a measure in support of a state law seeking to ban the drug. He called the rise in cases of autism an epidemic in the country, even though no direct scientific link to thimerosal has been established. Earlier this year, Legislator Steven Stern sponsored a bill calling for an outright ban on the use of vaccines with thimerosal in county health clinics. Levy's measure would have loosened the strictures of the ban.

But not because of the cost. While lawmakers argued that the notoriously frugal CE was looking to save money, using the less expensive vaccine, Dumas explained the initiative was prompted by concerns from county medical health professionals.

A letter signed by six of the health department's medical health professionals including Acting Health Commissioner Dr. David Graham, Dr. K. Aletha Maybank, director of the Office of Minority Health, and Dr. Patricia Dillion, acting director of the Division of Public Health, authored after the committee discussion, outlines the Department of Health concerns, while emphasizing that officials are not seeking to reverse the thimerosal ban. Rather, the letter states, "our proposed amendment sought to give patients the ability to make an informed choice."

In the simplest terms, using thimerosal-free vaccines requires more shots and more clinic visits for infants. Traditionally, from the age of two months to six months, infants receive nine injections over the course of three visits. Going thimerosal-free means children would have to receive 14 injections during five or six clinic visits during the same time pan. It will be more difficult and time consuming for parents to ensure their babies get all the immunizations they need, the letter states. The missive reiterates, "The Department of Health Services' proposed amendment merely sought to allow providers to explain choices to health center patients about the availability of both types of vaccines (with or without thimerosal), the number of required trips and follow-up visits for each type, and allow patients to make an informed choice."

Additionally, the doctors voiced a worry that the new thimerosal-free policy "could reduce immunization rates and thereby increase the spread of communicable diseases which are presently under control." Some parents may not follow through with the more time consuming option.

Finally, the medical health professionals noted that during the recent budget process, the department advised the legislature that switching to a thimerosal free program would carry a price tag of $900,000. The legislature allocated a third of the implementation cost and according to the letter, Levy has committed to fully funding the remaining two thirds of the cost, "notwithstanding our Department's public health concerns about implementing the ban."

The bill was killed in committee.

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