Vaccines function by stimulating the immune system and prompting a primary immune response to an infecting pathogen or to molecules derived from a particular pathogen. The immune response elicited by this primary exposure to vaccine pathogen creates immunological memory, which involves the generation of a pool of immune cells that will recognize the pathogen and mount a more robust or secondary response upon subsequent exposure to the virus or bacterium. In successful immunization, the secondary immune response is sufficient to prevent disease in the infected individual, as well as prevent the transmission of the pathogen to others. For communicable diseases, immunizations protect not only the individual who receives the immunization, but also others with whom he or she has contact. High levels of vaccination in a community increase the number of people who are less susceptible or resistant to illness and propagation of the infectious agent. Unvaccinated individuals or those who have not developed immunity to this pathogen are afforded an indirect measure of protection because those with immunity reduce the spread of the pathogen throughout the entire population. The larger the proportion of people with immunity, the greater the protection of those without immunity. This effect is called “herd immunity.” Herd immunity is an important phenomenon as immunization programs rarely achieve 100 percent immunization in a population; and in some cases, previously vaccinated persons may not exhibit effective immunity and disease may result from exposure to the pathogen. For protection, immunization of not only ourselves but also our neighbors is important.
The overwhelming safety and effectiveness of vaccines in current use in preventing serious disease has allowed them to gain their preeminent role in the routine protection of health. Before an immunization is introduced for population-wide use, it is tested for efficacy and safety. However, immunization is not without risks. For example, it is well established that the oral polio vaccine on rare occasion causes paralytic polio and that vaccines sometimes lead to anaphylactic shock. Given the widespread use of vaccines; state mandates requiring vaccination of children for entry into school, college, or day care; and the importance of ensuring that trust in immunization programs is justified, it is essential that safety concerns receive assiduous attention.
Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA, P.L. 99-660) in 1986. The legislation was intended to bolster vaccine research and development through federal coordination of the vaccine efforts in government and by providing relief to vaccine manufacturers who reported at the time that financial burdens from awards in the tort system threatened their financial viability. The legislation was also intended to address concerns about the safety of vaccines by instituting a compensation program financed by an excise tax on covered vaccines, setting up a passive surveillance system for vaccine adverse events, and by providing informa-