The recommended schedule of vaccines for children is safe and has done much to dramatically lower the incidence of devastating illnesses, according to a new national scientific study that was partly led by a Northwestern University professor.
"Vaccines are among the most effective and safe public health interventions to prevent serious disease and death. Because of the success of vaccines, most Americans have no firsthand experience with such devastating illnesses as polio or diphtheria," according to the Institute of Medicine's report titled, "The Childhood Immunization Schedule and Safety: Stakeholder Concerns, Scientific Evidence, and Future Studies." The Institute of Medicine is an independent, nonprofit group that is the health arm of the National Academy of Science.
The report, which was released this month,comes as some parents and health activists have said that the vaccinations could cause health problems in children.
Dr. Paul Greenberger, professor in allergy-immunology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and one of the paper's authors, acknowledged these concerns.
"Vaccine safety is on a lot of people's minds all of the time, and identifying safety issues," Greenberger said.
But he and his fellow researchers found no cause for alarm about the schedule of vaccinations that pediatricians recommend for children. The researchers examined data on the vaccination' safety record produced by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.
"We could not find evidence that the complete schedule is unsafe," Greenberger said. "We looked at chronic conditions, and found no evidence for a relationship between them and the complete composite schedule."
These chronic conditions include allergies, lupus, asthma and autism, he said. "It was very reassuring and should be very reassuring" for the public.
By the time that they start kindergarten, about 90 percent of children in the United States receive most of the age-appropriate vaccines suggested by the federal immunization schedule, according to the report.
That schedule, which the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices prepared, can include one to five injections in a pediatric visit, with a total of 24 immunizations given by age 2.
Greenberger said researchers should continue to examine databases about vaccinations and children's health to get a more detailed picture of the safety record.
Greenberger and the study's co-authors recommend that the federal government do more to support the Vaccine Safety Datalink project, which was created in 1990 to monitor immunization safety and address research gaps in knowledge about serious and rare events which occur post-immunization.
The project, which is a collaborative effort between the Immunization Safety Office for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and nine managed care organizations, has compiled a large database about vaccinations and their medical outcomes.
"We recommended that the government fund and support the project. We also recommended that the (U.S.) Department of Health and Human Services consider expanding the Vaccine Safety Datalink partnerships," Greenberger said. "We thought the data could be useful for collecting data for additional studies and for ongoing efforts to learn about the schedule's safety."
Dr. Gary Freed, chief of the division of general pediatrics and director of the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit for the University of Michigan Health System, said the Institute of Medicine's report was "thorough and well-done, and reached rational conclusions."
"I think the issue of vaccine safety is complex and has a long history of misinformation and unsubstantiated information, which has been presented by many different sources," Freed said. "It has been a danger that people from celebrities to pseudo-scientists disseminate information that's just plain wrong. As a result, some parents have not immunized their children, because they have been scared from incorrect information about vaccine safety."