www.SickOfLawsuits.org Web Chat

Dr. Paul Offit
May 18, 2005, 12:00pm ET

Doctor Offit:
Good Afternoon and thank you for joining the chat today. I'd like to thank www.SickofLawsuits.org for focusing on how litigation has driven companies away from making lifesaving vaccines. Additionally, frivolous health care litigation increases health care costs, restricts access to medication and stunts medical innovation, especially in the area of vaccines. My upcoming book, The Cutter Incident, takes an in-depth look at how our first Polio vaccine led to the growing vaccine crisis. The purpose of this chat is not to debate the alleged link between Autism and vaccines, although that will be addressed, but rather how lawsuits have a larger impact on our health care. Now, let's focus on your questions.

Jilldc: Was the vaccine crisis that happened last fall a result of lawsuit abuse?

Doctor Offit:
In part, yes. The influenza vaccine shortage of last year and the year before were due to in large part to a crumbling infrastructure. There were in 1955, 26 companies that made vaccines, and most of those companies were American-based. When a pandemic of influenza occurred in 1957, 6 American companies responded by making influenza vaccine. Lawsuits in the early 1980s drove most American companies out of the vaccine business. As a consequence, no American companies make influenza vaccines today. While there are additional reasons why companies are abandoning vaccines, lawsuits are certainly part of the problem.

Marcus_Johnson: How has the recent rash of lawsuits contributed to the decline in the advancement of the important task of trying to discover new vaccines?

Doctor Offit:
In the mid 1980s, a system or a program was put in place to protect vaccine makers from frivolous lawsuits. That program was called The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. And it saved vaccines manufacturers in the United States. However, the program is leaky. For example, an unborn child is not protected by the program if a mother is vaccinated. Therefore, the maternal immunization strategies which could readily prevent viral and bacterial diseases that kill children in the first month of life are not pursued. For example, there is a bacteria called Group B Strep for which the technology is readily available to prevent the disease, but it would mean immunizing women when they are pregnant.

andrew1: Don't you think there are many vaccine cases where companies are clearly at fault and deserve a lawsuit?

Doctor Offit:
Probably the worst vaccine disaster in the United States occurred in 1955. At that time, Cutter Laboratories made a polio vaccine that inadvertently paralyzed about 200 people and killed 10. It was probably the worst biological disaster in the history of the United States. But examination of the records at Cutter Laboratories showed that they did not know they were doing anything wrong. And in the 200 years, the vaccines have been used in the United States, there has never been a company that knowingly distributed a vaccine that they knew was unsafe. However, people who suffer harm from vaccines should reasonably be compensated for that harm.

Jimbo: Will more reform make it too difficult for people who are legitimately harmed to get help?

Doctor Offit:
No. It will make it more difficult for people who are not legitimately harmed by vaccines to be compensated.

Jenny: Why don't trial judges simply dismiss frivolous lawsuits and be done with it?

Doctor Offit:
Judges, like trial lawyers, don't have a background in science. As a consequence, they often don't know the difference between frivolous lawsuits and real lawsuits regarding issues of science. By having a system such as the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, courts are able to avail themselves of excellent scientific advice by experts. This obviates problems of bias associated with data presented by plaintiffs and defendant experts. These experts are paid to testify.

Jenny: Why don't trial judges simply dismiss frivolous lawsuits and be done with it?

Doctor Offit:
The goal is not to elevate juries and judges to a level beyond their scientific expertise.

Doctor Offit: I've got time for one more question.

Timsmith: I have a small child. I've heard that vaccines cause autism. Is this true?

Doctor Offit:
Studies have shown that vaccinated children are not at greater risk for autism than unvaccinated children, so people who choose not to vaccinate their children do not decrease their child's chance of getting autism, they only increase their child's chance of getting a vaccine-preventable disease.

Doctor Offit: Thank you again for joining us today. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, my book, The Cutter Incident: How America's First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis, will be released in September. If you are not already a Sick of Lawsuits member, please join. If you are a member, please continue to support the effort and get others involved.

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