You know the antivaccinationists are going to go nuts over this one

There’s been a bit of bad news on the vaccination front:

ATLANTA – More than a million doses of a common vaccine given to babies as young as 2 months were being recalled Wednesday because of contamination risks, but the top U.S. health official said it was not a health threat.

The recall is for 1.2 million doses of the vaccine for Hib, which protects against meningitis, pneumonia and other serious infections, and a combination vaccine for Hib and hepatitis B. The vaccine is recommended for all children under 5 and is usually given in a three-shot series, starting at 2 months old.

Drug maker Merck & Co., which announced the recall after testing this week showed a sterility problem in a Pennsylvania factory, said concerned parents should contact their child’s doctor.

“The potential for contamination of any individual vaccine is low,” said Merck spokeswoman Kelley Dougherty.

The health risk:

Parents will probably be concerned, CDC officials acknowledged. Should the vaccine later prove contaminated, health officials believe most children will experience, at worst, a skin irritation around the vaccination site. Problems could be worse for children with compromised immune systems.

Such problems would have appeared within one week of the vaccination, Schuchat said, adding that there have been no reports suggesting vaccine contamination so far.

The contamination involved unspecified equipment used in making the vaccine, which involves taking concentrated Hib virus, diluting it and combining it with other agents. Kuter said that during a routine evaluation of Merck’s West Point, Pa., vaccine plant, a sterility test determined that the equipment was contaminated with a bacteria called Bacillus cereus, or B. cereus.

In other words, very, very low. However, expect antivaccinationists to milk this incident for all it’s worth:

The recall is likely to heighten a debate over childhood vaccines and their safety and whether too many are required. Some parents are distrustful and suspect some vaccines of being linked to autism, although scientific studies have not shown such a connection.

At least the writer acknowledges what science has shown: that there is no credible scientific evidence linking vaccines to autism. What also should have been mentioned is that the reason thimerosal, the mercury-containing vaccine preservative blamed for autism, used to be used in the manufacturing process of such vaccines is to prevent contamination of this very sort creeping in. I don’t know if it was used here, which would have been useful information. (The reasons that some multidose containers of vaccines still contain trace amounts of thimerosal far below what was contained in vaccines before 2002 is because it is still used during steps in the vaccine manufacturing process.) If it wasn’t, then it would be an indication to me that its removal, which although unnecessary from a scientific viewpoint but irresistible from a political standpoint, was not without a price.

From my perspective, this incident actually demonstrates that the vaccine monitoring system works. After all, no contamination has been detected, and there have been no reports suggestive of problems due to contaminated vaccines; yet as a preemptive measure a huge supply of vaccines is going to be recalled. It also demonstrates how precarious our vaccine supply is, given that a recall by a major supplier of a very important vaccine that has saved many lives can disrupt the Hib vaccine supply for the nation for nine months. The number of vaccine suppliers has dwindled since the 1950s because, contrary to the claims of antivaccinationists, most childhood vaccines aren’t that profitable to develop and manufacture, and the liability concerns are huge given the millions of children who are vaccinated. What worries me about this incident is that it brings to light just how little it would take to jeopardize our supply of critical vaccines.