Public Release:  IOM report details strategy for monitoring safety of childhood immunization schedule

National Academy of Sciences

WASHINGTON -- A review of the available evidence underscores the safety of the federal childhood immunization schedule, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine. Should signals indicate the need for investigation of the schedule, however, the report offers a framework for conducting safety research using existing or new data collection systems.

Roughly 90 percent of American children receive most childhood vaccines advised by the federal immunization schedule by the time they enter kindergarten, noted the committee that wrote the report. However, some parents choose to spread out their children's immunizations over a different time frame than recommended by the schedule and a small fraction object to having their children immunized at all. Their concerns arise in part from the number of doses that children receive; the schedule entails 24 immunizations by age 2 given in amounts ranging from one to five injections during a pediatric visit. Some critics of immunization policies have called for studies comparing health outcomes among vaccinated and unvaccinated children and for research to determine if subgroups exist that are predisposed to experiencing harmful health effects from the vaccines.

Studies have repeatedly shown the health benefits associated with the recommended schedule, including fewer illnesses, deaths, and hospital stays, the report notes. Every new vaccine is tested for safety and evaluated in the context of the entire schedule before it is added. And the systems designed to detect possible harmful effects of immunization have worked well at discovering occasional problems with individual vaccines, such as a rare intestinal disorder linked to a now-discontinued rotavirus vaccine. However, the elements of the schedule -- the number, frequency, timing, order, and age at which vaccines are given -- are not well-defined in existing research and should be improved.

Until newer and bigger data collection systems can be harnessed, the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) is the best available tool for exploring questions about the immunization schedule should the need arise, the committee concluded. This database contains information on the immunization histories of more than 9 million people covered by nine participating managed care organizations. Researchers can identify individuals who were vaccinated according to alternative schedules as well as any diagnoses, medical procedures, and outcomes they have experienced. VSD also contains data on race, age, gender, and other factors that help researchers do better comparisons and account for factors that might affect participants' health. Already a research team has tapped VSD to explore patterns among children in the Kaiser Permanente Colorado system who are defined as undervaccinated.

However, VSD tracks people from only eight states and looks at a smaller percentage of low-income and minority people than is in the U.S. population as a whole. Moreover, VSD's usefulness depends on the continuing involvement of participating health plans. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its partners should maintain their commitment to funding VSD and consider bringing in additional health plan members to enhance the data and make it more representative of the full U.S. population, the report says.

Newer data collection and surveillance systems offer great potential to monitor rare adverse events that may be associated with the childhood immunization schedule, the committee said. When fully implemented, the Sentinel Initiative program being developed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to monitor the safety of approved drugs and other medical products will complement existing passive vaccine surveillance systems, the report says. FDA's new Post-License Rapid Immunization Safety Monitoring Program is amassing a large amount of health data, offering the potential to analyze vaccine exposures and adverse events with a greater degree of statistical power.

Although randomized controlled trials are the gold standard for clinical research, such a trial cannot be safely and efficiently performed to compare health outcomes among vaccinated and unvaccinated or differently immunized children, the committee concluded. Among other reasons, children placed in the study group that does not receive vaccines in a timely fashion would be exposed to greater risk for contracting illnesses. Many parents who refuse immunization may object to their children being randomly assigned to the group that gets vaccines.

Some people have suggested comparing vaccinated children with children in "naturally occurring" populations of unimmunized individuals, such as certain religious communities. With less than 1 percent of the American population refusing all immunizations, however, it would be very difficult to recruit enough willing unvaccinated participants, the committee concluded. It can take tens of thousands of study participants to discover uncommon health problems. Moreover, these populations tend to be much less diverse ethnically, racially, socio-economically, and genetically than the general population, and because such factors can influence health, it would be difficult to determine if differences between the study groups are the result of vaccines or these other factors. The costs of conducting this kind of study or a randomized controlled trial likely would be prohibitive.

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The report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Established in 1970 under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine provides objective, evidence-based advice to policymakers, health professionals, the private sector, and the public. The Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and National Research Council together make up the private, nonprofit National Academies. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org or http://iom.edu. A committee roster follows.

Contacts:

Christine Stencel, Senior Media Relations Officer

Luwam Yeibio, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu

Additional resources:

Report in Brief

Project Website


Pre-publication copies of The Childhood Immunization Schedule and Safety: Stakeholder Concerns, Scientific Evidence, and Future Studies are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu or by calling tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. More information is available at http://www.iom.edu/childimmunizationschedule. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE

Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice

Committee on the Assessment of Studies of Health Outcomes Related to the Recommended Childhood Immunization Schedule

Ada Sue Hinshaw, R.N., Ph.D. (chair)
Dean and Professor
Graduate School of Nursing
Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
Bethesda, Md.

Tomás Aragón, M.D., Dr.PH
Executive Director
Center for Infectious Disease Preparedness
School of Public Health
University of California
Berkeley

Alfred O. Berg, M.D., M.P.H.
Professor
Department of Family Medicine
School of Medicine
University of Washington
Seattle

Stephen L. Buka, M.A., M.S., Sc.D.
Professor and Head
Epidemiology Section
Department of Community Health
Brown University
Providence, R.I.

Gerry Fairbrother, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow
AcademyHealth
Washington, D.C.

Elena Fuentes-Afflick, M.D., M.P.H.
Professor of Pediatrics, Epidemiology, and Biostatistics
University of California, and
Chief of Pediatrics
San Francisco General Hospital
San Francisco

Sidney Gospe, Ph.D., M.D.
Herman and Faye Sarkowsky Endowed Chair; and
Professor and Head
Division of Pediatric Neurology
University of Washington
Seattle

Paul A. Greenberger, M.D.
Professor
Interdepartmental Immunobiology Center
Feinberg School of Medicine
Northwestern University
Chicago

Daniel F. Heitjan, Ph.D.
Professor of Biostatistics and Statistics
Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology
School of Medicine
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia

Annette C. Leland, M.B.A.
Independent Consultant
Washington, D.C.

Pejman Rohani, Ph.D.
Professor
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Center for the Study of Complex Systems
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Lainie Friedman Ross, M.D., Ph.D.
Carolyn and Matthew Bucksbaum Professor, and
Associate Director
MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics
University of Chicago Chicago


Pauline A. Thomas, M.D.
Associate Professor
Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health
New Jersey Medical School
Newark

STAFF

Karen Helsing, M.H.S.
Study Director

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