The shots wonâ€™t even be available for months, but makers of vaccines designed to guard against outbreaks of the so-called Swine Flu will be immune from personal-injury lawsuits brought on behalf of patients who are injured or killed after getting them.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has granted drug companies immunity from swine flu injuries under provisions of a 2006 law designed to be used in public health emergencies. The legal protection is included in a document Sebelius signed last week, according to government health officials cited in news reports.
Several drug companies are said to be working on developing vaccines to guard against Swine Flu and doses are expected to be ready for patients in the next few months.
Authorities have said millions of Americans, particularly children, the frail and elderly, and those with weakened immune systems who are most at risk of developing severe problems if infected, may be vaccinated against the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus beginning later this year.
Swine Flu emerged from Mexico earlier this year and has killed 263 Americans and infected as many as one million, most with mild to moderate symptoms. Health officials are bracing for an expected spike in such cases this Fall.
Treating Vaccine Makers with Kid Gloves
Makers of childhood vaccines have been shielded from lawsuits since the 1980s. A federal court handles such claims and decides which patients will be compensated for their injuries from a fund set up just for such cases.
The idea is, if you give vaccine makers immunity from lawsuits filed for injuries caused by the drugs, the companies will be more willing to invest money and time in developing the vaccines. Conversely, allowing future patients to file suit for injuries caused by Swine Flu vaccines could have a chilling effect on drug companies and discourage them from even trying to develop and market the medications, which tend to be the least profitable drugs companies can make.
2009: Itâ€™s not 1976
During an outbreak of Swine Flu in 1976, about 40 million people in the United States rolled up their shirt sleeves to get vaccinated as part of a nationwide campaign. The outbreak started among soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J. and led to one death, but it also raised fears of a larger, deadly pandemic like the influenza outbreak of 1918 and 1919 that killed about 100 million people worldwide.
The feared pandemic of deadly Swine Flu never happened in 1976, but thousands of people who got shots filed lawsuits claiming they developed Guillian-Barre Syndrome, a condition which causes muscle paralysis, and suffered other side effects as a result. The government was forced to pay many people damages for their vaccination injuries.
That wonâ€™t be happening with the 2009 outbreak. People who get the shots to protect them from Swine Flu will have no legal recourse against the makers of the vaccines, which has some personal-injury attorneys crying foul.
New York City plaintiffâ€™s attorney Paul Pennock, who handles medical liability cases, said the government is expected to call on millions of people to get vaccinated in order to keep Swine Flu from spreading, but those people will not have legal rights to sue if they are injured or killed as a result.
“If you’re going to ask people to do this for the common good, then let’s make sure for the common good that these people will be taken care of if something goes wrong,” Pennock said, according to a report on MSNBC.com.
Who is the Government Protecting?
As the government extends blanket legal immunity to makers of Swine Flu vaccines, you have to wonder: Who are Sebelius and health officials trying to protect? Itâ€™s clear they have the financial interests of drug companies in mind, but what about patients? Potentially millions of people may be urged to get vaccinated later this year, but will they do so knowing they and their loved ones have no legal rights to sue the vaccine maker if they suffer an injury or die as a result?