NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 1, 2005

What role did personal-injury lawyers play in pushing vaccine makers to make better, safer products? The answer: none. That's because the tragedies caused by vaccines weren't the result of foul play, cost-cutting, deceit or misrepresentation. Every problem was caused by the inevitable, painful, intolerable but requisite process of knowledge gained with time that is required for advances in science and medicine, says Paul A. Offet, chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Like it or not, we learn as we go. And no amount of suing is ever going to change that, explains Offet.

In addition to contributing nothing to making vaccines safer:

  • Personal-injury lawyers have made vaccines more expensive and less available; that's because most lawsuits are directed at problems not caused by vaccines.
  • In the late 1970s and early 1980s, lawyers sued vaccine makers claiming that the pertussis vaccine caused Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, paralysis, mental retardation, epilepsy and unexplained coma.

Despite a series of epidemiologic studies showing these claims to be groundless, many lawsuits were successful.

  • As a consequence, the price of the pertussis vaccine increased from 17 cents per dose to $11, the number of companies making vaccines decreased from 26 to four, and the number of U.S.-based companies making influenza vaccine decreased from six to zero.
  • Today, personal-injury lawyers claim that thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative in vaccines, caused autism -- despite abundant scientific evidence to the contrary.

To save vaccines, Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act in 1986, a law which included the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Now, when parents claim that their children were harmed by routinely recommended childhood vaccines, they take their case to "vaccine court" where scientists, epidemiologists and clinicians review data and decide whether the claim is valid. The system brings reason and fairness to decisions about vaccine safety, says Offet.

Source: Paul A. Offet, "Lawsuits Won't Stop Pandemics," Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2005.

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