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Once again the federal Vaccines for Children program is arousing controversy, from critics who say if the program is made available to all children it will drain the pharmaceutical industry of profits used to research new vaccines, and from others who claim it will cost millions more than anticipated.

In 1993, federal vaccine spending topped $300 million, but it may go as high as $1 billion by 1996, according to some estimates.Although it is true that VFC, like most government programs, is more expensive than anticipated, and was originally intended as a vaccination program for the poor, VFC is having a highly positive impact on America's children.

In Texas, for instance, only 30 percent of 2-year-olds had all their shots in 1993. Today, 55 percent do, an increase attributable partly to the months of publicity that preceded VFC's Oct. 1 start.

But when Congress created VFC, it included a clause that states could add their own funds or federal grants to buy the cheap vaccine for any child. Spearheaded by Tennessee and Delaware, a number of other states are considering the deal.

If this were to happen, not only would every child get free shots, but doctors would not face the paperwork nightmare that forces many to send patients to public clinics for vaccinations.

Since the government already bought up to 65 percent of the vaccine at half price, critics are worried that drug companies will lose precious profits. Moreover, three new vaccines are about to join the list of free shots, prompting many in Congress to propose slashing the vaccine program.

Congress should approach any change in the VFC budget with extreme caution.

At its April meeting, the National Vaccine Advisory Committee plans to hear from outside consultants who have been retained to study the matter. Their conclusions and suggestions about savings should be studied carefully before taking any action.

Even so, a decision to slash VFC or eliminate it entirely would be shortsighted. Trying to rein in a small part of the congressional budget at the cost of numerous children going without immunizations would represent a major sacrifice of humanity for minimal financial savings. It is not a good idea.