Thimerosal as discrimination: vaccine disparity in the UN Minamata Convention on mercury

Indian J Med Ethics. 2014 Oct-Dec;11(4):206-18. doi: 10.20529/IJME.2014.054. Epub 2014 Apr 11.


When addressing toxins, one unmistakable parallel exists between biology and politics: developing children and developing nations are those most vulnerable to toxic exposures. This disturbing parallel is the subject of this critical review, which examines the use and distribution of the mercury (Hg)-based compound, thimerosal, in vaccines. Developed in 1927, thimerosal is 49.55% Hg by weight and breaks down in the body into ethyl-Hg chloride, ethyl-Hg hydroxide and sodium thiosalicylate. Since the early 1930s, there has been evidence indicating that thimerosal poses a hazard to the health of human beings and is ineffective as an antimicrobial agent. While children in the developed and predominantly western nations receive doses of mostly no-thimerosal and reduced-thimerosal vaccines, children in the developing nations receive many doses of several unreduced thimerosal-containing vaccines (TCVs). Thus, thimerosal has continued to be a part of the global vaccine supply and its acceptability as a component of vaccine formulations remained unchallenged until 2010, when the United Nations (UN), through the UN Environment Programme, began negotiations to write the global, legally binding Minamata Convention on Hg. During the negotiations, TCVs were dropped from the list of Hg-containing products to be regulated. Consequently, a double standard in vaccine safety, which previously existed due to ignorance and economic reasons, has now been institutionalised as global policy. Ultimately, the Minamata Convention on Hg has sanctioned the inequitable distribution of thimerosal by specifically exempting TCVs from regulation, condoning a two-tier standard of vaccine safety: a predominantly no-thimerosal and reduced-thimerosal standard for developed nations and a predominantly thimerosal-containing one for developing nations. This disparity must now be evaluated urgently as a potential form of institutionalised discrimination.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Developing Countries*
  • Drug and Narcotic Control*
  • Healthcare Disparities* / ethics
  • Humans
  • International Law
  • Mercury / administration & dosage*
  • Moral Obligations
  • Social Discrimination*
  • Thimerosal / administration & dosage*
  • United Nations
  • Vaccines / administration & dosage*


  • Vaccines
  • Thimerosal
  • Mercury