Effective immunization programs have markedly diminished the incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases. As a result, there now exists in society a lower awareness of the actual risks associated with the diseases themselves and a greater prominence of the potential risks of adverse effects associated with vaccines.

Concern regarding public reactions to new vaccine safety issues may place pressure on policymakers and/or health care providers to act quickly in response to new information. However, this concern must be tempered by the necessary caution required to assess the intended and unintended risks and benefits of any action undertaken. The interplay of these potentially competing demands is well illustrated by the recent safety concern involving the use of thimerosal in vaccines.

Thimerosal is a mercury-containing compound that has been widely used as an antimicrobial agent in vaccines for over 60 years. Human exposure to mercury may have potentially significant health consequences. By mid-1999, the...

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