House and Senate conferees on the Labor/HHS spending bill agreed last week to a compromise amendment by House Appropriations Committee Chair Dave Obey (D-WI) that would force HHS to phase out mercury-laced flu shots for children younger than 3. The measure would take effect for the 2010-2011 flu season. Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) had wanted the ban to go into effect by the 2009-2010 flu season but settled for an extra year after the Senate opposed any provision to address mercury in vaccines.

The flu vaccine amendment gives HHS the discretion at the start of the flu season to determine vaccine accessibility and offer waivers for health care providers to distribute vaccines with thimerosal.

Thimerosal is used in childhood flu vaccines because it helps prevent contamination of multi-dose vials.

"Hopefully, this will push HHS to work with manufacturers and make approval for thimerosal-free vaccines for kids a priority," a Weldon staffer says.

The staffer says Weldon has been meeting with vaccine manufacturers over the last few months to discuss mercury-free vaccines for kids under 3.

An earlier Weldon amendment to the HHS spending bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee in July called for thimerosal to be eradicated from vaccines by the 2008-2009 flu season. But Weldon tweaked his bill in conference to move the effective date to 2009-2010, and then agreed to Obey's request that the deadline be extended an additional year. He also added the waiver provision.

Obey had opposed the Weldon amendment during committee markup.

Public health advocates and several lawmakers, including Weldon and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), think mercury exposure may be leading to autism in children, but government agencies say evidence of such a link does not exist.

Earlier this year, Weldon and Maloney introduced bipartisan legislation that would phase out the use of all mercury-containing vaccines for pregnant mothers and infants by the 2008-2009 flu season.

At press time the House was poised to vote a second time on the Labor/HHS conference report after the Senate voted Wednesday (Nov 7.) to separate the bill from the veterans funding measure.