A federal vaccine compensation program was founded to compensate people who were injured by vaccines. Numbers prove these injuries don’t happen often.

By Anna Halkidis
MAGNIFIER/Shutterstock

Are vaccines safe? Of course they are. But that question is gaining a lot of momentum in recent months in anti-vaxxer groups and social forms. Meanwhile, the United States has seen its worst measles outbreak in decades—there have been more than 1,000 cases from January to June 2019, almost 20 years after the viral infection was declared eliminated in the country in 2000.

To help put the question to rest, a federal database called the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) has appeared in the news lately, reiterating that it's extremely rare to get injured by a vaccine, and when people are, it's mostly minor.

Signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1986, the program, a no-fault system, allows people to file a claim if they believe they or a family member have been injured by vaccines. More than a dozen vaccines are covered, including MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella), Td (tetanus), HPV (human papillomavirus), and the flu shot (seasonal influenza). And several types of illnesses, disabilities, injuries, and conditions from those vaccines are also covered.

Majority of claims are due to shoulder injuries, often because of the way a vaccine (usually the flu shot) was administered. More severe claims include Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare incurable condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves. In rarer cases, petitions have been filed for a death. That can be because of anaphylaxis following a vaccine, which occurs in less than two cases per million doses of vaccines.

“The vast majority of people who get vaccines have no serious problems, but like any other medicine, there are side effects. These are usually very rare and mild,” says Narayan Nair, M.D., who oversees VICP as the director of the division of injury compensation programs department at the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). “But in these very rare cases, our program exists to provide compensation for them.”

Why was the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program started?

In the late ’80s, lawsuits started popping up against vaccine companies and healthcare providers from individuals alleging they or their children were injured by vaccines. “That threatened a shortage of vaccines and vaccination rates,” explains Dr. Nair. “There was also a concern there would be a resurgence of these vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Public health physicians, he says, also feared research for developing new vaccines would plummet. And people who claimed to be injured from vaccines were going through the traditional system—oftentimes waiting years for a result—and desired a better alternative. In turn, a number of different groups called for federal intervention.

The program has made the process simple for individuals who believe they have been injured by a vaccine. They need to file a petition with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (they can opt for an attorney) and HRSA's medical staff determines whether the case should be compensated or not. It’s then passed down to the U.S. Department of Justice where the Court makes the final decision on compensation and decides on the amount. VICP also covers all the legal costs.

How rare is vaccine injury?

Between 2006 and 2017, 3.4 billion doses of the covered vaccines were administered in the United States, according to HRSA. During that time, almost 6,300 petitions were reviewed and just a little more than 4,300 were compensated. “That means out of 1 million doses of vaccines that were distributed in this country, one person was compensated for an injury,” says Dr. Nair. Also, 70 percent of compensated cases came out of a settlement without confirmation the vaccine caused the injury.

Overall, there have been more than 20,000 petitions filed since the program was launched. In the early 2000s, some of those petitions alleged a link between vaccines and autism. That was shortly after a famously debunked 1998 study which connected the MMR vaccination to autism.

The court looked at those cases, along with reports and expert testimony to conclude there is no link between the two. “The court’s decision is consistent with scientific evidence,” says Dr. Nair. “We’ve never compensated, nor have we been ordered to compensate any case, based on the determination that autism was caused by a vaccine.”

To date, 6,551 petitions have been compensated totaling about $4.1 billion.

The benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks

Experts say injuries from vaccines don’t compare to their success. Vaccinations “will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the last 20 years,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Look at measles, for example: Before the measles vaccination program began in 1963, the highly contagious viral infection affected about 3 to 4 million people each year and led to 400 to 500 deaths and 48,000 hospitalizations.

“True the program exists to compensate the people that are injured; those injuries do occur, but they occur at a very low rate,” says Dr. Nair. “The vaccines’ benefits far outweigh its risks.”

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