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Open Access Correspondence

Neurologic adverse events associated with smallpox vaccination in the United States – response and comment on reporting of headaches as adverse events after smallpox vaccination among military and civilian personnel

Walter R Schumm

Author Affiliations

School of Family Studies and Human Services, College of Human Ecology, Justin Hall, Kansas State University, 1700 Anderson Avenue, Manhattan, KS, USA 66506-1403

BMC Medicine 2006, 4:27  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-4-27

Published: 10 November 2006

Abstract

Background

Accurate reporting of adverse events occurring after vaccination is an important component of determining risk-benefit ratios for vaccinations. Controversy has developed over alleged underreporting of adverse events within U.S. military samples. This report examines the accuracy of adverse event rates recently published for headaches, and examines the issue of underreporting of headaches as a function of civilian or military sources and as a function of passive versus active surveillance.

Methods

A report by Sejvar et al was examined closely for accuracy with respect to the reporting of neurologic adverse events associated with smallpox vaccination in the United States. Rates for headaches were reported by several scholarly sources, in addition to Sejvar et al, permitting a comparison of reporting rates as a function of source and type of surveillance.

Results

Several major errors or omissions were identified in Sejvar et al. The count of civilian subjects vaccinated and the totals of both civilians and military personnel vaccinated were reported incorrectly by Sejvar et al. Counts of headaches reported in VAERS were lower (n = 95) for Sejvar et al than for Casey et al (n = 111) even though the former allegedly used 665,000 subjects while the latter used fewer than 40,000 subjects, with both using approximately the same civilian sources. Consequently, rates of nearly 20 neurologic adverse events reported by Sejvar et al were also incorrectly calculated. Underreporting of headaches after smallpox vaccination appears to increase for military samples and for passive adverse event reporting systems.

Conclusion

Until revised or corrected, the rates of neurologic adverse events after smallpox vaccinated reported by Sejvar et al must be deemed invalid. The concept of determining overall rates of adverse events by combining small civilian samples with large military samples appears to be invalid. Reports of headaches as adverse events after smallpox vaccination appear to be have occurred much less frequently using passive surveillance systems and by members of the U.S. military compared to civilians, especially those employed in healthcare occupations. Such concerns impact risk-benefit ratios associated with vaccines and weigh against making vaccinations mandatory, without informed consent, even among military members. Because of the issues raised here, adverse event rates derived solely or primarily from U.S. Department of Defense reporting systems, especially passive surveillance systems, should not be used, given better alternatives, for making public health policy decisions.