Vaccine compensation program overdue: experts
Experts at the University of Toronto say Canada should join the U.S., the U.K. and other nations in developing a fund to compensate those who have been injured by vaccinations.
Vaccination programs are seen as one of the greatest advances in medicine, prompting dramatic declines in the incidence of infectious diseases, such as measles and polio.
While countless studies have shown that vaccines are overwhelmingly safe, every year in Canada and around the world, a few individuals sustain permanent harm from vaccines.
That's why a report from the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs says it's time that Canada joins other countries in creating a fund to compensate those who have been hurt after a vaccination.
Even though routine vaccines are given to millions of Canadians every year without incident, every once in a while, for reasons doctors still don't understand, some patients develop serious reactions.
About one in a million, for example, will develop the mysterious condition known as Guillian Barre Syndrome, or GBS.
Donna Hartlen developed GBS just a few days after getting the H1N1 vaccine, watching as her body slowly became paralyzed. While she received quick treatment, she now has a lingering condition called CIDP, or chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy.
"My feet are always in pain, so I can't feel my toes, I can't feel the bottom of my feet and they're in pain," she says. "So I'm on pain medication all the time. I'm never not on pain medication."
While she used to work as a computer consultant, she had to stop working and close her business. She's lost her income, and needs help to care for her children.
"It's hard. It's hard on the marriage. It's cost me my independence. I'm one of the most independent people you know, I had my own business that I can't run. I can't work. It's cost me a lot," she says.
The only way Hartlen can get compensation is to sue the vaccine maker, which would be a long and costly process and might fail.
Charlie Cahill also developed temporary paralysis after getting his first flu shot.
"A week after I had my vaccine, I tried to stand up from my desk and my legs, my quadriceps, I had no strength in them. I could barely stand. And then over the next three or four weeks, it spread up into the arms. It's called an ascending paralysis," he remembers.
"It was like winning the bad lottery. You don't believe it. It's hard to believe but the proof is there when you get up in the morning and you just try to get dressed or walk around or even carry a bag of groceries."
Now, a new report says Canada needs a fund that will compensate patients like Hartlen and Cahill without a hassle. Plenty of such programs exist in Europe and the U.S. -- even the province of Quebec has its own compensation fund. The report's authors say Canada is long overdue for a similar program.
"We have to expect that there are going to be some rare adverse events (from vaccines) and we need a program that can address these rare events," says report author Jennifer Keelan of the University of Toronto's School of Public Health.
Charlene Wiles, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada, said officials will review the report.
"The Public Health Agency of Canada welcomes the report on a no-fault vaccine-injury compensation programme for Canada," Wiles said in a statement to CTV News. "The Agency will review the report and consider its recommendations as part of its National Immunization Strategy (NIS) review."
She added that vaccine safety is already one of the "key areas" included in the review.
Keelan says currently the only recourse for people who have been injured by a vaccine is to sue the vaccine's maker or provider. But there has not been a single successful civil lawsuit for medical injury related to immunization in Canada, she says.
"These are very difficult cases to prove in court," she says. "For most people, the risks of being injured from the vaccine are so rare and so idiosyncratic that judges have deemed that a reasonable person, even if they were told that they may actually get GBS after a flu vaccine, they still would have gone ahead and been immunized against flu. And so these cases are really not winnable."
Not only do victims spend money trying to fight the cases, but so do the vaccine makers.
"And so nobody wins. There's money spent and the only people that win are the lawyers, really," she says.
A no-fault compensation program for vaccine-related injuries would review each claim case by case and then offer payouts based on needs proportionate to the injury.
Keelan believes a no-fault compensation program for vaccine-related injuries would not only benefit people who suffer harm, it might also give those who are waffling about whether to get a vaccine the incentive they need to go ahead.
"It's the right thing to do," says Keelan.
"We want people to be vaccinated. Vaccines are incredibly safe and they are one of the most effective public health measures that we have for preventing vaccine preventable diseases. So we want people to get vaccinated. We want them to have confidence in our publicly funded vaccine."
Donna Hartlen agrees. After a family member died of the flu, she always got the flu vaccine without fail. She believes she did her part and the government should do theirs.
"If they're willing to… pay for a program for vaccinations, then they should be willing to accept that there could be damage to people and there should be compensation," she says.
"You did the right thing for your community; now, your community should do the right thing for you if something goes wrong."
Keelan will present her research later this spring to vaccine makers and those who design Canada's vaccination programs, including the Public Health Agency of Canada.
With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro