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Publication: Get Ready for Fall School Vaccinations

Publication

Get Ready for Fall School Vaccinations

Late in 2011, Pennsylvania passed changes to the laws on mandatory immunizations required for public school children and increased the obligations of school districts to report to state health officials on immunization records for their students. Pennsylvania pediatricians and family doctors are already following the refined state requirements, and information on the mandated immunization schedule can be found on school district websites as well as at the Pennsylvania Department of Health, www.state.pa.us.

While enforcement of the State’s immunization requirements has been stepped up, children are still exempt if the parent, guardian, or emancipated child objects in writing to the immunization on a religious ground or on the basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction similar to a religious belief. Exemption is also granted to any child whose medical providers certify in writing that immunization would be detrimental to the child’s health.

Vaccines protect us from a host of diseases that once regularly brought suffering and death to the global population. Polio, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles, meningitis, and hepatitis are just a few of the many potentially deadly diseases prevented relatively easily by timely vaccination. But for some people, vaccination may bring injury in the form of autoimmune, neurological, gastrointestinal, or developmental disorders. A lively debate now exists on whether permanent, long-term disabilities may be caused or triggered by vaccines or vaccine additives. Vaccines contain suspending fluids, preservatives, and stabilizers to help the vaccine remain unchanged, and they may include enhancers that help the vaccine improve its work. Common substances found in vaccines include aluminum gels, salts of aluminum, antibiotics, egg protein, formaldehyde, and Thimersol, which contains mercury.

The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Act of 1986 is a federal law enacted to streamline vaccine litigation and to create opportunities for the prompt settlement of vaccine injury claims. Before bringing a civil suit against a vaccine manufacturer, a victim of vaccine injuries must first file a claim in a specially created federal court that judges have come to call “the Vaccine Court.”

The Act provides for “a less-adversarial, expeditious, and informal” process of resolving vaccine injury claims by creating informal standards of admissibility of evidence; giving parties the opportunity to submit arguments and evidence on the record without requiring routine use of oral testimony, cross-examinations, or hearings; and establishing limits on pretrial proceedings.

Vaccine claimants who can prove that they suffered some injury from a vaccine are entitled to “no-fault” compensation in Vaccine Court. A claimant suffering from a “vaccine-related injury” may recover actual medical and rehabilitative expenses, damages for reduced earning capacity or lost wages, up to $250,000 in damages for pain and suffering or emotional distress, and reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. No punitive damages are permitted, and no jury trials are held. The decisions in Vaccine Court are made by hearing officers called “special masters,” who are federally appointed.

If a claimant accepts compensation awarded by the Vaccine Court, he or she can’t later sue the manufacturer. But the Vaccine Act also gives a claimant the option to reject the Vaccine Court’s award and to take his or her case to state or federal court. Strict and sometimes conflicting statutes of limitations apply in vaccine claims, and it is important for vaccine claimants to meet the filing deadlines in Vaccine Court and also, if they later choose to sue, in state or federal court.

Pennsylvania parents have not been successful in their attempts to litigate vaccine claims in state court without first going to Vaccine Court. One couple’s seven-year-old son was diagnosed with disintegrative autism resulting from his ingestion of mercury. The child’s developmental history included his having started to lose his language and motor skills at 18 months of age.

The couple claimed that when the boy was an infant, he was poisoned by mercury contained in Thimersol, a biocide used as a preservative in many vaccines for many years until the late 1990s. Arguing that their suit did not raise vaccine issues but instead focused on a contaminant or adulterant intentionally added to a vaccine, the couple argued that they should be permitted to bring a products liability action without going to Vaccine Court. The Pennsylvania Superior Court disagreed, holding that injuries from Thimersol are vaccine-related under the meaning of the Act and must be litigated in Vaccine Court.

To find out what chemical additives are in specific vaccines, you can ask your health-care provider or pharmacist for a copy of the vaccine package insert, which lists all ingredients in the vaccine and discusses any known adverse reactions. To report a health problem that followed vaccination, you or your provider should go to the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System site, www.vaers.hhs.gov.