By Jennifer Margulis
On Saturday, January 10, 2009, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) hosted an all-day meeting with 50 members of the public in Ashland, Oregon to discuss vaccine safety and to hear recommendations from the public about where research money about vaccine safety should be spent. A similar meeting was held in Birmingham, Alabama on December 13, 2008, and a third public meeting will be held in Indianapolis on January 17, 2009.
Ashland residents, including concerned parents, health care professionals, and students, were paid a $50 stipend to attend. At least 15 others were present, including government representatives, facilitators from the Keystone Center, and outside observers. Unlike the two other locations, Ashland has a high percentage of unvaccinated children. In 2007, 28.1 percent of incoming kindergarteners were partially or wholly exempt from vaccinations for religious or medical reasons (compared with 3.7 percent statewide). Religion is defined in Oregon as "any system of beliefs, practices, or ethical values."
Two overview lectures—one about the history of vaccines and vaccine safety by Dr. Louis Cooper, professor emeritus of pediatrics at Columbia University, and one about government plans to use public and stakeholder input by John Iskander, acting director of the CDC's Immunization Safety Office (ISO)—were followed by small group discussions and a full group discussion.
Iskander said that the ISO helps ensure the safety of vaccines after they are licensed and in general use, and responds to public concern about vaccine safety. The ISO would like to find out from the public: concerns about vaccine safety; which concerns are most important and; why these concerns are important. This public input will be used to draft a Scientific Agenda for how research funding should be allocated for the next five years. This draft Agenda will be given to the National Vaccine Advisory Committee (NVAC).
A lively Q&A session followed the lectures, and there was energetic debate in the small group sessions, moderated by Keystone Center mediators and attended by public health officials who expressed repeatedly that they were there to listen to public concerns.
Community members voiced concerns about:
Possible links between autism and vaccinations
Possible long-term adverse effects of vaccines on the immune system
Possible links between vaccines and autoimmune diseases
High numbers of vaccines given to children today
Giving the Hepatitis B vaccine to newborns
Health care professionals' lack of respect toward parents who choose not to vaccinate
Lack of communication between health officials and parents
Lack of transparency by the government about vaccine safety issues
The majority of community members were skeptical about the efficacy and safety of vaccines, but the mood in the room was positive and mutually respectful. "I thought this was great," said James Shames, medical director with the Department of Health and Human Services for Jackson County, Oregon. "Exactly what I wanted to see happen happened—we had some dialogue and people talked openly about their concerns."
Any parent can send comments about the future of vaccine safety research to the United States Department of Health and Human Services at:
or by mail:
The National Vaccine Program Office
United States Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Ave. S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20201