18 January 2013

Africa: Mercury Treaty Protects Vaccine Access

Photo: Tommy Trenchard/IRIN
Artisanal diamond miners at work in an open-pit mine in Koidu.

press release

Advocacy efforts led by PATH help safeguard access to vaccines in treaty limiting mercury in the environment

Government delegates finalizing a global environmental treaty on mercury have agreed to exclude vaccines containing the preservative thiomersal from regulation, an important step championed by PATH and our partners to protect access to lifesaving vaccines.

The treaty focuses instead on restricting products and pollutants that are the major sources of mercury released into the environment and that pose a serious health risk.

PATH coordinated the advocacy efforts of partners and public health experts worldwide to ensure the final treaty language did not restrict access to vaccines containing thiomersal. The issue was under discussion during treaty negotiations because thiomersal contains a small amount of ethyl mercury.

An essential component of vaccines

Since the 1930s, thiomersal (known as thimerosal in the United States) has been used as a preservative to protect some vaccines from bacterial or fungal contamination. Numerous studies have concluded that thiomersal poses no health risk. Vaccines save an estimated 2.5 million lives every year, with 1.4 million of those lives saved by vaccines containing thiomersal.

A panel of expert advisors to the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded: "Thiomersal-containing vaccines [are] safe, essential, and irreplaceable components of immunization programs, especially in developing countries, and...removal of these products would disproportionately jeopardize the health and lives of the most disadvantaged children worldwide."

Protecting health and the environment

PATH worked in partnership with WHO, UNICEF, the GAVI Alliance, and civil society organizations as well as animal health experts to educate country delegates, most of whom are from ministries of environment.

PATH, the Communication for Development Centre, the International Pediatric Association, and other members of the GAVI Alliance Civil Society Constituency played a vital role by facilitating communication between ministries of health and ministries of environment. In finalizing the treaty language, many country delegations made strong statements about the essential role of thiomersal-containing vaccines in protecting health.

More than 140 countries and 900 delegates participated in the final negotiations, which were hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme in Geneva, Switzerland.

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