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May 1997

Vaccine's Value and Safety Explored

2000 Professionals attend the 31st National Immunization Conference

No health program has saved as many lives or spared as many years of productive life as the United States childhood immunization program, according to Walter A. Orenstein, M.D., director of CDC's National Immunization Program. Orenstein addressed more than 2,000 health care professionals, scientists and researchers during the first day of the four-day 31st National Immunization Conference held here.

"Immunization levels for children today are the highest ever. More importantly, most diseases preventable with vaccines are at their lowest levels ever," Orenstein said. He credited bold initiatives that improved outreach, ensured children from needy families have access to free or low cost vaccines, and comprehensive state immunization laws enacted and enforced in all 50 states, and the District of Columbia.

Public and private health care professionals in attendance were cautioned by Orenstein that despite all the good news, they need to continue to worry. "Each day 11,000 children are born in the United States and we start over again with them at zero shots. Not to mention that approximately one million preschool children in the United States right at this minute are missing one or more of the recommended vaccinations," he said.

During the national conference, nationally recognized vaccine and public health experts will be conducting hundreds of workshops. One of this year's first workshops was on the highly topical issue of vaccine safety. During the workshop, participants explored the question, "How do we know vaccines are safe, and how can we share this information with concerned parents?"

CDC's Gina Terracciano, D.O., explained why issues of vaccine safety today are so important for health care providers to address. "Research indicates that health care providers remain the number one source parents turn to when faced with concerns about vaccinating their children. It's imperative that, even in settings where time is in short supply, providers be receptive to parents who have questions."

Terracciano explained that our very success with children's vaccines during the past 40 years has paradoxically proven to be one of our major liabilities in maintaining high levels of immunization today. "In the 1950s, parents and grandparents were personally familiar with the annual summer-to-autumn devastations of polio. Similarly, the vision of a child choking and strangling from breathing obstruction caused by diphtheria was familiar to families then.

Today's young parents have rarely, if ever, seen the toll of these diseases because of the success of our vaccine programs. Even so, these disease-causing organisms have not disappeared, but have only receded in the background, waiting for an opportunity to invade."

Before a vaccine is licensed for use in the United States, it is tested first in the laboratory, then in animals, and finally in phased clinical human trials to ensure the vaccine's safety and effectiveness. Orenstein emphasized that while vaccines today are safe and effective, CDC must be prepared to investigate any possibility of adverse events following immunization. CDC must also determine and then warn people if, in fact, adverse events are caused by a vaccine and, when they are not, to dispel concerns so that children can continue to be protected through immunization.

Other topics that will be discussed at the conference include, what needs to be done to prevent 20,000 elderly from dying each year because of complications from influenza and pneumonia, what steps must be taken to complete the worldwide polio eradication effort, and what new vaccines are on the horizon. The conference is being held at the Westin Hotel Renaissance Center, downtown Detroit, and will continue through Thursday afternoon.

Parents and others with questions about immunization should call CDC's National Immunization Information Hotline at 1 800 232-2522 (English) or 1 800 232-0233 (Spanish) to talk to an information specialist or receive information materials.

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