The Jabs That Really Sting

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I had a severe adverse reaction to the Gardasil cervical cancer vaccination. The Gardasil vaccine was introduced by the Australian government to lower rates of cervical cancer by preventing certain types of human papilloma virus (HPV). After receiving each of my HPV shots I fell considerably ill. I didn’t link the illness to the vaccine and I went on to have all three shots in the series. Within six weeks of my last shot I was put on steroids for a serious auto immune attack including join complications and convulsions. I suffered a neurological reaction to the vaccine, according to my neurologist and was at times unable to stand and walk. I was forced to take months of unpaid sick leave.

Regaining strength through ongoing bouts of chronic fatigue and illness has taken two years. Only now do I have the strength and wellbeing to go on and pursue my post-graduate studies. I am finally back at work almost full-time and am looking forward to a complete recovery.

In seeking redress for what happened, I didn’t have many options. I could have elected to privately sue my general practitioner for medical negligence — with an initial investigation fee upwards of $6000. However, I was warned that this would be a lengthy, arduous and highly stressful process.

Few may suffer serious adverse reactions to vaccines but for those who do, the consequences can be dire.

The Australian vaccination industry is a multi-million dollar industry that produces vaccinations that save countless lives and decrease morbidity each year. Most people consent to immunisation because they believe that the benefits outweigh the low risk of adverse reaction. Depending on the vaccine, such reactions are experienced by one in 10,000, one in 50,000 or even one in a million patients. But for those who do, there is little in the way of statutory protection.

Every year Australians experience serious adverse reactions (pdf) to vaccinations, including the triggering of seizures and neurological conditions, paralysis, Guillian Barre Syndrome, blood clotting, joint problems, the early onset of various auto-immune diseases, and in rare cases, death. Last year, one out of every 100 Australian children vaccinated with Fluvax experienced febrile convulsions, 10 times the expected rate.

The US Department of Health and Human Services set up the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP) to compensate individuals and families of individuals injured by vaccines. According to the US government the vaccine program was established as a no-fault compensation scheme "whereby persons allegedly suffering injury or death as a result of the administration of certain compulsory childhood vaccines may petition the federal government for monetary damages". At least a dozen other countries have introduced similar vaccine injury compensation schemes, including Germany, New Zealand, Canada, Japan and Taiwan. In Sweden and the US, vaccine manufacturers pay a premium for each vaccine sold into an injury compensation fund. Sweden also has provisions for the use of non-governmental pharmaceutical insurance.

Australia is yet to introduce such a scheme. Professor David Isaacs, various lawyers and politicians and Associate Professor Heath Kelly of Melbourne University’s School of Population Health all argue that Australia would benefit from a similar judicial body or compensation scheme.

Professor Isaacs at the University of Sydney’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases told New Matilda that the most important justification for a vaccine injury compensation scheme, "is an ethical argument from justice and equity: introduction of a vaccine injury compensation scheme acknowledges the unique situation that routine childhood immunisation is a public health measure, given and accepted in good faith, that may occasionally damage the recipient".

"Society expects children and adults to be immunised in public health programs," he said. "It is only fair and just that society, in the form of national government, should compensate families of individuals when vaccine injury occurs through nobody’s fault."

Stephen Tunley is the Australian delegate of Sanevax, an organisation which advocates for "safe, affordable, necessary and effective vaccinations". He is also the father of Chescia Tunley, another young woman who experienced an adverse reaction to Gardasil. Since her vaccination she has suffered myriad health issues including seizures and tachycardia. Tunley said he feels abandoned by the Federal Government. He has met with government officials, including Health Minister Nicola Roxon, but they have found no resolution.

Tunley would like to see the introduction of a vaccine injury compensation scheme, "because at the moment there is no formal system in which anyone damaged by a vaccine can appeal and seek redress". Tunley plans to sue his daughter’s general practitioner. Even so, his daughter is left with pain, suffering, loss of earnings and permanent disability. Moreover, private litigation is enormously expensive, outcomes are uncertain, and large US-style payouts are rare in Australia.

According to Bill Madden of Slater and Gordon, "The difficulty of bringing a successful compensation claim under current law is perhaps demonstrated by the historical data; there have been few successful claims arising from vaccination". Madden describes medical law as overly complex and "very difficult" for patients to sue on the basis of adverse reactions. He has never personally won a case for a vaccine victim. Madden also told New Matilda that "in Australia, even strong evidence that a vaccination has led to an adverse reaction will not necessarily lead to a viable legal claim for compensation".

Government arguments against vaccine compensation schemes include the cost of administrating such a body and the fact that the size of the problem does not justify such a major undertaking. Proving that an injury was caused by vaccination could take years, if in fact it can ever be conclusively resolved.

An alternative option would be to establish a National Disability Scheme, which is currently under consideration by the Productivity Commission. This scheme would cover individuals regardless of how their injury was sustained. Such a scheme recognises that medical needs should determine what assistance and support the community provides, rather than how the injury was acquired. It recognises that lengthy and expensive litigation is the last thing one needs when trying to adapt to a new life after injury.

In the absence of specific legislation to deal with adverse reactions to vaccines, the public is left vulnerable. We all benefit from comprehensive and successful vaccination programs, through herd immunity and ultimate eradication of diseases such as smallpox. Therefore, shouldn’t we all take some responsibility for those people, in that tiny number of cases, who suffer injury in the pursuit of this common good?

 

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