WASHINGTON - As thousands protested yesterday that childhood vaccines are unsafe, federal health officials emphasized that they're looking for any signs of a link between the shots and autism but that evidence supports the health benefits.
"I don't believe there is evidence that links vaccines to autism, but I do believe these are concerns we need to take seriously," said Dr. Peter L. Goodman, director of the Food and Drug Administration's vaccines division.
FDA officials said that the agency has been monitoring reports of vaccine side effects with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that it inspects vaccine manufacturing plants at least every two years, all the while reviewing new research that might shed light on the causes of autism and the workings of the shots.
FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach said the agency plans to connect the latest discoveries about the causes of autism with new understanding about the workings of vaccines and genetics to probe for hidden links.
But von Eschenbach said the benefits from inoculating children argue in favor of continued vaccinations. Federal health officials blame scattered measles outbreaks on state law provisions allowing certain families to opt out of vaccination requirements.
The remarks, during a talk with reporters, came shortly after a demonstration on the National Mall by parents who believe that vaccines are not safe. Von Eschenbach noted that protesters, clad in green T-shirts, could be seen walking outside the FDA offices.
Rita Shreffler, executive director of the National Autism Association, said 10,000 signed up to attend the protest. Shreffler said that FDA and CDC officials rely on a few studies conducted overseas to vouch for vaccine safety and that their monitoring is inadequate.
"It's not enough. For too long we've had the same agencies responsible for promoting vaccines responsible for monitoring their safety, and that doesn't work," said Shreffler, who lives near Springfield, Mo.
Long-standing fears that immunizations for polio and other infectious diseases are linked to cases of autism were reinvigorated this year when a government vaccine court ruled in favor of a family originally from Ellicott City who claimed a link to their daughter's autism.
The family, now living in Georgia, said vaccines given in 2000 worsened a rare mitochondrial disorder in their daughter, Hannah Poling, triggering autism. After the ruling, advocates said the victory established a link, but CDC officials and prominent doctors said otherwise.