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Burton Interested in Vaccine Data

May 2, 2002 | AP

Insurance companies say a congressman's threatened subpoena of medical information about millions of people could violate patient privacy and force them to close a database that lets the government study vaccine safety.

Another congressman urged Rep. Dan. Burton, R-Ind., a frequent vaccine critic, "to drop your threats" to subpoena the records.

"I know you are deeply interested in the safety of immunizations," Rep. Henry Waxman (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif., wrote Burton Thursday. But "a subpoena would have the opposite effect, jeopardizing the (database) system and thereby reducing vaccine safety."

Burton's office didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

The Vaccine Safety Datalink, or VSD, contains medical information about 7.5 million Americans provided by several large HMOs. Names and other obvious identifiers are removed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses the database to study whether vaccines cause various side effects. For example, a diarrhea vaccine was pulled off the market in 1999 after database studies uncovered injured infants.

Scientists are now debating whether a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosal — once used in several child vaccines, but now almost completely replaced — ever harmed infant development. CDC's database studies so far haven't confirmed any damage.

Burton wants nongovernment scientists to double-check the results.

Burton's staff developed a draft subpoena for access to the records, Waxman said. HMOs argue the subpoena will threaten patient privacy so much that they are considering dismantling the database.

"It is really a dire threat," said Steven Black of Kaiser Permanente.

Even without names, the database contains enough personal information that it would be possible for a dogged researcher to identify someone and see all his or her medical records, Black said. A Kaiser researcher proved that by finding his own daughter's records simply by searching for someone her age who'd broken an arm on a certain date.

Waxman urged Burton to accept a CDC compromise to let Burton's researchers do their study under certain conditions, including not leaving the CDC building with any records.

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