The National Vaccine Advisory Committee's Vaccine Safety Working Group - which held its first meeting in Washington, D.C., earlier this month - will look at the overall scientific system of vaccine safety and which new tools, such as genetics, could be used to improve it.
Andrew Pavia, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah, said yet another important function is to help gather public input that will be considered by the CDC when setting its Scientific Agenda.
"This is new for vaccine safety - to develop a long-term plan in a very public way and to get outside review on it," said Pavia, whose group expects to deliver a draft report to the CDC in about six months.
The CDC's agenda, he said, was drawn up in response to a 2005 Institute of Medicine recommendation - not to the controversy about vaccines and autism - and covers several areas, including vaccine safety research, surveillance and clinical guidelines.
"There was a clear recognition though at that time that the process perhaps has not been open enough," he said. "There had not been enough voices at the table and, for parents and others to feel the right questions are being asked and the right science is being done, there needs to be a mix of openness and transparency."
Some of the questions the CDC will examine in the coming years include whether immunization is linked to neurological problems in children with mitochondrial disorders, and if the measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (MMRV) vaccine increases the risk for febrile seizures.
"It is very important the public has faith in the system and that they are aware of what goes on to ensure the safety of the vaccines," said CDC spokesman Curtis Allen.
Over the next five years, the field of vaccine safety will continue to grow, according to a CDC paper about its five-year plan. In October 2007, 59 vaccines were licensed in the U.S. and several are either currently under review by the FDA or are in phase-three clinical trials.
And with a greater number of vaccines available, the immunization schedule is becoming more complex, the paper says. In 1998, for example, seven vaccines were routinely recommended for children and adolescents. This year, it's 13.
But what, if any, risks some of these vaccines may pose to the general population are not well understood. In the 1990s, for example, a committee formed by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, found that of 76 "adverse events" it reviewed, 50 had no or inadequate research to form a conclusion.
"There are more vaccines than ever before," Pavia said. "People are losing their fear of the diseases they are to protect us from" and instead are worried about the risks of the vaccines.
The autism and vaccine controversy was fueled late last year when the federal government awarded money to an Athens, Ga., family whose healthy 19-month-old daughter, Hannah Poling, became sick in 2002 after receiving multiple shots. She was later diagnosed with autism.
The government agreed to compensate the Poling family on the theory that vaccines may have aggravated an underlying disorder affecting her mitochondria that had predisposed her to symptoms of autism.