The great vaccine preservative debate

Webster’s dictionary defines a preservative as “a substance added to food products or to organic solutions to prevent decomposition due to chemical change or bacterial action.” Even though most vaccines are manufactured under strict aseptic and sterile technique, preservatives have been added for decades to help prevent bacterial growth or changes in the composition of the medication during storage and use.  Preservatives are used more now in multi-dose vials, or vials that contain enough medication to provide vaccines to several people.  For the most part, vaccines are packaged in single-use containers today to help prevent the need for preservatives.

One of the most well-known preservatives is thimerosal–an additive that gained popularity for all the wrong reasons when it was “mistakenly” linked to autism in a flawed 1998 study that has since been disproven according to researchers.  Nonetheless, the FDA has moved to eliminate or drastically reduce thimerosal levels in all vaccines that could be given to children under the age of 6 years. The only vaccine that still contains thimerosal is the inactivated influenza vaccine. What’s the difference between the inactive and active forms? Inactive is typically given by injection and the active, or live form is given by nasal spray and is often called the “flumist”.

Even if thimerosal is removed from the vaccine industry, there are still plenty of other components to address. Aluminum, formaldehyde, human serum albumin (a protein), gelatin, antibioitics and yeast proteins may still be found in the suspensions.  Heavy metals like aluminum have been long debated regarding their link to Alzheimer’s and dementia along with other conditions.  The general public has been lead to believe that by removing thimerosal from circulation (for the most part) that vaccines are composed of harmless ingredients, but the secret is truly in the shelf life in this case.

Without preservatives, it would be difficult for vaccine manufacturers to make and distribute vaccines as they currently do. Some vials may sit in refrigerators for weeks or even months before use, and preventing contamination and bacterial growth is key to providing medications that are as safe as possible.  Injecting a patient with tainted, bacteria-laden vaccine could be more than dangerous–in the right circumstances, it may even be deadly.

In some cases the preservatives work to keep the virus or bacteria from being able to reproduce to dangerous levels–levels that might make one sick instead of building immunity.  Others types of preservatives work to prevent the development of fungus inside the vials.

Before the use of preservatives, vaccines earned their dangerous reputation as children across the country died after recieving tainted doses of medication.  Most cases occured in the decades following production of vaccines–before the manufacturing process and vaccine handling process was better understood.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Parents should be reassured that quantities of mercury, aluminum and formaldehyde contained in vaccines are likely to be harmless on the basis of exposure studies in humans or experimental studies in animals.” Harmless? That’s a debate with a preservative of its own–and its sure to be around for years to come.


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