CDC To Separate National Immunization Program, Vaccine Safety Division
CDC on Feb. 18 announced that it would divide its national immunization program, which encourages vaccination, and its vaccine safety branch, which monitors potential risks, to create two separate offices, the New York Times reports. CDC Director Julie Gerberding said the separation is intended to improve the "credibility and capability" of the safety branch.
The move comes amid criticism that CDC's advocacy program affects the agency's ability to monitor and investigate adverse reactions to vaccines. According to the Times, "much of the pressure" has come from political leaders and parents of autistic children, who believe there might be a link between thimerosal, a mercury preservative once used in many childhood vaccines, and autism. CDC also has been criticized for holding private meetings with representatives of the vaccine industry, government officials and physicians to discuss the preliminary findings of a 2003 study that did not show a significant link between autism and thimerosal, according to Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.).
A panel of medical experts assembled by the Institute of Medicine on Feb. 17 issues recommendations to ease restrictions to CDC's "heavily guarded" Vaccine Safety Datalink, which contains more than seven million medical records that CDC used to monitor reactions to vaccines, for scientists outside the agency. CDC spokesperson Tim Skinner said the agency would consider the panel's recommendations and "continue to deliberate on them as we strengthen our vaccine program."
Gerberding said, "We believe the best practice for the safety monitoring program is to keep it in a separate locus from the large-scale program."
Weldon said the move was "a step in the right direction," adding, "You can't have an organization whose primary [objective] is getting kids vaccinated also have credibility in looking at side effects."
However, Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the advisory panel, said, "The notion has been that this is the fox guarding the henhouse. That's not true. They care as much about vaccines being safe as they care about them working. They wouldn't recommend them unless they felt the benefits clearly outweighed the risks" (O'Connor/Harris, New York Times, 2/25).
In related news, Gerberding in a speech in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday said that CDC must be on the lookout for domestic health threats, including West Nile virus, influenza and staph infections, as well as global threats, such as tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS, CQ HealthBeat reports. She added, "We know there are huge gaps in our knowledge base ... we estimate that we have evidence-based information for only about 25% of the portfolio of responsibilities we have as an agency."
Gerberding also noted CDC successes over the past year, such as record vaccination rates for children, increased distribution of rapid HIV tests and the agency's handling of the national flu vaccine shortage (CQ HealthBeat, 2/24).