Vaccines remain one of the greatest success stories in public health. But for some Americans, rare side effects of inoculations have led to hardship, serious injury, even death.
For almost three decades, the federal government has quietly acknowledged as much: It has paid out more than $3.2 billion to 4,150 individuals and families for injuries caused by everything from flu, diphtheria and tetanus shots to whooping cough vaccines.
While impassioned claims about the possible dangers of vaccines did little this spring to prevent California lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown from approving the state’s strict new vaccine requirements for schoolchildren, the little-known National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program will be the court of first resort for parents who claim their vaccine-injured kids suffered the consequences of the new law.
In interviews with this newspaper, parents who have experienced the grueling, bureaucratic process to prove their cases say the program needs more scrutiny and attention as California and other states tighten their vaccine laws.
Because there’s so little publicity about the program, Amy Mitten-Smith, a special education consultant in San Diego, almost missed the deadline to file a claim on behalf of her now-8-year-old son, who suffered neurological damage from childhood vaccines.
“When parents are taking their child in for their well-baby shots, the doctor should give them information about where they can go and who they can contact if there is an adverse reaction to the vaccine,” said Mitten-Smith, who ultimately received $55,000 from the court. “And after asking for medical attention for the reaction, the first thing they should be told about is the court system.”
Heartbreaking claims about vaccine-injured children from parents surfaced this year during the rancorous legislative hearings surrounding Senate Bill 277, championed by two state senators in the wake of a measles outbreak that started in Disneyland.
The new law, which kicks in next summer, removes virtually all exemptions, except medical ones, to state-required shots for any child enrolling in public or private school. It has enraged many parents who believe that vaccines can cause autism — a link repeatedly refuted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a host of studies.
“We are very supportive of vaccinations, and certainly we think that they are a critical aspect to health care in the U.S.,” said Renee Gentry, president of the Virginia-based Vaccine Injured Petitioners Bar Association, which includes about 70 attorneys across the country who have represented such victims in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C.
“But as important as they are, vaccines are not magic,” Gentry said. “They are man-made, for-profit pharmaceuticals — and like anything else they can cause reactions.”
Yet 27 years after the program was created, many Americans — even physicians — don’t know it exists.
A 2014 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office pointed out the court’s long-standing lack of publicity, although it noted that an outreach plan is underway.
The chances of severe injury are infinitesimal, according to the CDC. More than 2.5 billion doses of vaccines were administered in the U.S. from 2006 to 2014, during which fewer than 3,000 vaccine injury claims were filed. About 1,900 individuals or families were compensated — or one for every 1 million vaccine doses given.
“They say it only happens to one in a million, but when you’re the one you don’t care about the others,” said Robert Searles, of Torrance, whose 72-year-old wife, Brooke, can only get around in a wheelchair after a flu shot in 2011 left her unable to walk.
The Searleses received $507,000 from the vaccine compensation program, not including the lifetime expenses for a personal aide, physical therapy and wheelchairs.
They are luckier than most: Since the specialized vaccine court started in 1988, more than 16,000 claims have been filed. More than 14,000 of them have been adjudicated, but nearly 10,000 have been dismissed.
To be eligible for compensation from the program, which is funded by a 75-cent tax on every vaccine, a petition must be filed within three years of the first symptom of the injury, within two years of the death, or within four years after the first symptom of the vaccine-related injury from which the death resulted.
Compensation for vaccine-related death is limited to $250,000. But vaccine-injured victims are entitled to lost wages, medical and rehabilitative expenses, and up to $250,000 in pain and suffering.
Children once made up the majority of cases, but since 2005 most claims have been filed by adults who say they were injured by vaccines, often flu shots.
The Searleses’ nightmare began in October 2011 after an annual flu shot appointment at the Home Depot where both had worked for years — she in the hardware department, he in gardening.
Days later, Brooke Searles began having trouble walking and breathing. Even after she was hospitalized, the cause of her illness eluded doctors. Finally, they diagnosed Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.
“Our life changed overnight,” Searles, 75, recalled. “People say to me, ‘Gee, Bob, I know how you feel.’ I tell them, ‘You have no idea how I feel.’ “
Michael Firestone, a San Mateo attorney who has handled some adult cases involving the syndrome, said even though the program was established “to give the benefit of the doubt to the petitioner,” the cases “are difficult to prove” and “not a slam-dunk.”
By the time some victims realize the program exists and contact him for help, he said, they have missed the deadline to file their case.
“You have three years to file, but if it’s a baby and the parents don’t know the full extent of the damage until the child is older, they’re sort of stuck,” Firestone said.
The Searles family was more fortunate. They hadn’t heard anything about the vaccine court, but some acquaintances alerted them in time to file their petition in May 2013. And they received their compensation 11 months later.
In a detailed study of the vaccine court published last month, Stanford law professor Nora Freeman Engstrom concluded that while the program “has done certain things well,” it has largely “failed to expedite cases and rationalize compensation decisions.”
Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-920-5343 and follow her at Twitter.com/taseipel.
VACCINE PROGRAM AT A GLANCE
The origins of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program date to the mid-1970s after lawsuits were filed against vaccine manufacturers by people who believed they or their children had been injured by vaccines. Damages were awarded “despite the lack of scientific evidence to support vaccine injury claims,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The lawsuits prompted several manufacturers to stop producing vaccines, creating a nationwide vaccine shortage and fear that epidemics would return. So in 1986, Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which established the program to compensate anyone injured by a vaccine through a “no-fault” basis that relieved vaccine makers of any liability.
The program has paid out more than $3.2 billion to 4,150 individuals and families for injuries. The government pays for petitioners’ legal fees whether they win or lose.
For more information about the program, go to www.hrsa.gov/vaccinecompensation/index.html
Sources: National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.