23. VACCINE LIBEL SUITS CREATE MONOPOLY: AFFECT QUALITY
The risk that this year's kindergarten class will ever contract diphtheria
or whooping cough is extremely small thanks to the infant immunization
program. But their younger brothers and sisters might not be so lucky
according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
The problem is vaccine liability: who, if anyone, should compensate
the relatively few children who suffer serious, permanent injury after
The risk is relatively small: the AAP estimates that one out of every
310,000 pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine doses results in permanent
brain damage; for every four million people who take live polio vaccine,
one may contract the disease itself.
But the potential libel risk is large: Paul Stessel, of Lederle Laboratories,
said that the total dollars demanded in suits now pending against the
company relating to alleged injury from pertussis vaccine are "200
times the total sales of the vaccine we produced in 1983. You don't
need many $10 million lawsuits to wipe out the business."
And that's one reason many companies have left the vaccine business.
Live polio vaccine was once offered by three companies, now it's offered
by only one. Two companies once produced whooping cough vaccine, but
one of them, Wyeth, dropped out in June, 1984, and, in July, the remaining
company, Lederle, doubled its prices. Both cited legal costs as the
reason for their actions.
Now there are 19 vaccines offered by a single American producer. And
the price of whooping cough vaccine is now 20 times higher than it was
just two years ago.
The Department of Health and Human Services is beginning to stockpile
vaccines against the possibility that one or another of these manufacturers
might discontinue production.
Legislation that would establish a no-fault, federal compensation program
for vaccine-associated injury cases --- as an optional alternative to
court awards -- has been batted about both houses of Congress for more
than a year, with still no final resolution.
Meanwhile, Martin H. Smith, of the AAP, said the issue, with several
vaccines, is rapidly reaching a crisis point -- "we are sitting
on an explosive situation, and it could have a short fuse."
SCIENCE NEWS, 9/15/84, "Litigation a Threat to Vaccine Supply?,"
by D. Franklin; WASHINGTON POST (editorial), 9/12/84, "Immunization
Risk;" NEW YORK TIMES (editorial), 10/15/84, "The Cost of
Ignoring Vaccine Victims."