Daily Express Antivaccine Paranoia

Following the embarrassment of their coverage of the Andrew Wakefield saga, you would have thought that gutter tabloids like the Daily Express would have learned their lessons when it comes to the issue of vaccination. Sadly not, as their “health editor” Lucy Johnston has written an unscientific scaremongering article critical of the vaccine Pandemrix, one of the pandemic influenza viruses approved for use by the European Commission. It begins with a hugely inflammatory gambit:

UP to a million under-fives have been inoculated against the flu virus with a controversial vaccine containing poisonous mercury.

Thimerosal structure

3D structure of thimerosal, with the mercury atom shown in silver. Note that the mercury is with the structure of the thimerosal molecule.

The complaint from Johnston is one that is so familiar it should make any decent antiantivaxxer groan: Pandemrix contains thiomersal, an organomercury preservative. The (lack of) toxicity of thimerosal is well documented, but the antivax argument always runs along these lines: thimerosal contains mercury, mercury is toxic, therefore thimerosal is toxic. Of course, this simple reasoning fails to take into account the levels of mercury in vaccines (typically about 50ug per shot, way less than in an average serving of tuna), the fact that thimerosal is metabolized to ethyl-mercury and not methyl-mercury or elemental mercury, and the fact that no studies have ever implicated thimerosal in vaccines as being harmful.

Despite this, Johnston tries desperately to cling on to the old thimerosal canard, even bringing in acupuncturist and antivaccine doctor Richard Halvorsen for a quote, as well as Jackie Fletcher from “support group” Jabs. It just so happens that these three form a little antivax triumvirate, with Jabs hosting an article from Johnston on it’s website, which one again quotes Halvorsen. An example of circular journalism if ever there was one.

In the short term, I suggest inundating the article with comments explaining where Johnston is plain wrong. Although quite why the Express would have a staunch antivaxxer as their health editor is beyond me…

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