Mercury in vaccines - Why bill to ban failed

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

After receiving widespread support from Missouri legislators and parents alike, a bill to remove a mercury-containing preservative from vaccines stalled in the Senate during the last week of the legislative session.

House Bill 852, which banned the use of thimerosal in childhood inoculations, was passed by a vote of 152-4 in the House in March, and was unanimously approved in a Senate health committee in April, but was not brought before the full Senate until the last two days of the session.

Proponents of the bill, including sponsor Rep. Roy Holand, R-Springfield, claim a three-hour filibuster by Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, on the last day of the session prevented it from passing.

"There had been no spoken opposition in advance of it coming to the floor, just some whispers around the Senate. We were surprised and disappointed," said Holand, a medical doctor.

When it was introduced last fall, Holand's bill was one of the first of its kind in the United States, although similar bills have now been brought up in Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota and Nebraska. Iowa's bill banning thimerosal, which is made up of 50 percent mercury by weight, from vaccines was officially signed into law last Friday.

Missouri's version would have prohibited giving vaccines with more than trace amounts of mercury to children 8 years or younger and would have required health officials to inform people of all ages if their vaccines contained thimerosal.

Holand said he believes only four or five senators would have been against the bill had it been put to a vote.

"The support was there but in the last days of session, one senator can hold up a bill," Holand said.

Sen. Jacob says he is not to blame for the bill not passing, but that he is opposed to it.

"I'm in the minority. I don't control how long a bill is given floor time," Jacob said. "Why would this bill surface on the last day? In the chaos of the last day, there was no time for serious discussion."

Jacob said he was asked if he wanted the bill to come to a vote and said 'no.' As for filibustering, Jacob says he talked for no more than 10 seconds about the thimerosal issue.

"I can't ever remember when the legislature has been asked to substitute its judgment for the medical community," Jacob said. "My comfort level with this bill was not very high."

Sen. Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said the bill was brought up twice in the final week of the session because he was trying to give it a fair hearing.

"Scores and scores of people think their bills are just as important," Kinder said. "I put this bill out there to be heard, but Democratic senators killed it. They flat out said, 'We are not letting this come to a vote.'"

Kinder said he does not support or oppose the bill, but asked for more evidence from a medical community divided over the thimerosal issue.

"I did not work to defeat it," Kinder said.

Right direction

Sen. Sarah Steelman, R-Rolla, who voted in favor of the bill when it went through the Senate Committee on Aging, Families, Mental and Public Health, said she felt the bill was a step in the right direction.

"It made it to the floor, but we couldn't get a few senators to sit down. They killed that bill," Steelman said. "They said they were afraid that parents might not be getting their children immunizations they needed if the bill was passed. I didn't understand why they thought that."

Steelman said what she finds most troubling is that there is no law requiring doctors to inform patients that some vaccines, including flu shots, contain mercury.

Lujene Clark, a mother of an autistic son and one of the bill's biggest proponents, learned of the hold up last Thursday and drove from her home in Carthage, Mo., in hopes of swaying senators who opposed the bill.

"We knew we had enough votes to pass by a wide margin with support from Republicans and Democrats alike," Clark said in an e-mail about the bill's ending.

Clark blames the Senate leadership of both parties for the bill not passing.

Holand, who is in his final term as a representative, said supporters of the bill will use a different strategy in getting it passed next year.

"We'll start the bill simultaneously in both the House and Senate, and we'll do it early in the session," Holand said. "We're optimistic that the votes will be there next year."

Holand said next year's bill should keep the same effective date for the thimerosal ban as this year's, which is set for May 2006.

Staff writer Bob Miller contributed to this report.

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