Taking steps to care for vaccines’ victims

Trish McCarthy and son Jacob, 15, who developed polio-like symptoms from a vaccine he was given as a baby. Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen
  • TheAustralian
  • 12:00AM June 27, 2011
AS a baby, Jacob McCarthy swallowed a spoonful of vaccine given by his doctor to protect him from polio.

That “live” vaccine, which contained small amounts of weakened polio virus and has since been replaced by a safer version, gave him the painful and paralytic symptoms of the devastating disease it was supposed to guard against.

It was a chance that medicos calculate to be one in 2.5 million – and Jacob was the one.

Now 15, the Queensland teenager is the case study in an escalating scientific debate over failure to compensate the rare but tragic cases of what health officials call “adverse events”.

Two of Australia’s top epidemiologists are demanding the introduction of a no-fault compensation scheme for victims of vaccination – a system already used in 19 nations including the US, New Zealand and Canada, and in most of Europe.

Associate professor Heath Kelly, who heads the epidemiology unit at the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory, and David Isaacs, a member of the federal government’s vaccine advisory committee, argue in the Medical Journal of Australia this month that the community owes a “debt of gratitude” to children harmed by vaccines given to provide the community with “herd immunity” against some of the world’s most dangerous diseases.

Professor Isaacs, who is on both the immunisation and the adverse drug reactions advisory groups of the Health Department’s Therapeutic Goods Administration, said yesterday he had raised the proposal at meetings of the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, as a matter of “ethics and justice”.

“It’s the sort of thing a caring government could do to encourage people to get their children immunised,” he told The Australian.

“Very, very rarely a vaccine harms a child. If they suffer long-term complications, currently the only way to get compensation is to prove someone is at fault – when no one is at fault.

“The fair thing to do would be to have a no-fault compensation scheme.”

With withered legs and a waddling gait, Jacob suffers from transverse myelitis, caused by an inflammation of the spinal cord that manifested six days after his routine immunisation with oral Sabin as a six-month-old.

He was two before he took his first steps and spent most of his childhood in a wheelchair.

Jacob’s mother, Trish McCarthy, from the north Queensland town of Innisfail, has considered suing for compensation but says no lawyer will touch the case. She first noticed Jacob’s paralysis six days after his routine immunisation against polio.

“I went to change his nappy and realised he wasn’t moving his legs,” she said yesterday.

Rushed to Cairns Hospital, he was given two lumbar punctures to check for meningitis but the tests came back clear and he was sent home a week later.

“The doctors didn’t tell me anything,” Mrs McCarthy said.

“They said, ‘There is nothing more you can do for him, just take him home’. I didn’t know what to do with him; he lay on the floor for three months and didn’t move.”

Nine years later, Jacob’s laboratory results caught the eye of Professor Kelly who, on behalf of the federal government’s Australian Pediatric Surveillance Unit, was on a mission to prove his hypothesis that six cases of transverse myelitis after vaccination against polio were purely coincidental.

“In Jacob’s case, I ended up not believing my own hypothesis,” Professor Kelly told The Australian yesterday.

“What we are doing as a community in promoting vaccination is protecting children, but once in a million doses something goes wrong.

“When this happens, we shouldn’t just wipe our hands and walk away. As a community we owe a debt of gratitude to that person, and it is our responsibility to look after and compensate children when something goes wrong.”

In a review of compensation schemes, published in a recent World Health Organisation bulletin, Professor Kelly has found that 19 other countries already provide automatic compensation to victims of vaccination.

The US scheme, which is funded by a US75c levy on all vaccines sold, paid out $US124 million last year for 2699 claims – an average payout of $US46,000 – yet maintains a $US3bn ($2.85bn) surplus.

New Zealand compensates for vaccination injury by paying medical costs, a disability pension and death benefits, a system linked to motor vehicle accident insurance. Sweden funds its scheme with a levy on pharmaceutical companies’ annual sales of vaccines.

Taxpayers fund the British program through an annual Treasury allocation.

But Jacob’s family has not seen a cent. “I always wonder what it would be like if I hadn’t vaccinated him,” Mrs McCarthy said yesterday.

“But you can’t be angry. If I were angry it would pass on to Jacob.”

Jacob, who can now walk after an operation last August to lengthen his muscles, plays wheelchair tennis and dreams of taking part in the Paralympics.

“There should be compensation,” he says of his ordeal. “But I’m pretty right with it now: it doesn’t worry me.

“At school, some kids annoy the hell out of me, but others stick up for you, so it’s good. Maybe I’ll go to uni and do something with computers.”

After Jacob’s reaction, Mrs McCarthy refused to vaccinate her two youngest children – one of whom contracted whooping cough at the age of 12.

But the live vaccine that caused Jacob’s condition is no longer used in Australia.

Australia was declared free of polio in 2001, and the live vaccine that had been used for half a century was replaced in 2005 with an inactivated vaccine that does not carry the same risk of paralysis.

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Father sues after one-in-a million vaccine reaction

Monday, 2 January 2017 1:10PM

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A man left permanently disabled after a one-in-a-million bad reaction to a whooping cough vaccination is preparing to face off against the WA Government to claim millions of dollars in medical negligence compensation.

Ben Hammond, his wife Tanya and their five children have been left emotionally and financially crippled since the 2012 injection.

Experts say the injection led to Mr Hammond contracting acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, an autoimmune disease causing irreversible spinal cord damage.

The rare reaction left Mr Hammond without any feeling from the waist down, with difficulty walking and memory loss — a reaction traced by an immunology expert to the vaccine given weeks earlier at King Edward Memorial Hospital so he could visit his prematurely born son.

After failing in several appeals for an ex gratia payment from the Government, the Hammonds are pursuing a negligence claim against the WA health minister — litigation they believe could be a watershed for vaccine injury law in Australia.

The couple say that what they really want is a chance to live a normal life.

Ben and Tanya Hammond.
Ben and Tanya Hammond.

“Before this we lived a normal, peaceful life — now it is non-stop roller-coaster,” Mr Hammond said.

“This is not about millions of dollars or a mansion. This is about allowing us to live a normal life with our children.”

The family are being supported in their battle by former Federal MP Alannah MacTiernan, who has called on Attorney-General Michael Mischin to intervene and grant the family an ex gratia payment.

The Hammonds have also been backed to the tune of $10,000 by public donations after launching a GoFundMe page to appeal for financial help to compile expert reports to be used in court.

Ms MacTiernan said any negligence payout would help pay for Mr Hammond’s long-term medical treatment, which includes hundreds of dollars a month in supplies, as well as compensating the family for the loss of his $280,000-a-year salary earned as a mine supervisor.

She is also calling for a national compensation scheme for those who suffer a rare adverse effect from a vaccination.

A 2010 World Health Organisation bulletin estimated that 19 countries have such a scheme.

“It is very sad that the family have had to go down this legal route because this is a case where the Government and the family should have been able to get together and work out a solution,” Ms MacTiernan said.

Ben Hammond, with son James, in hospital after a reaction to the vaccine. Pictures: Vaccine Injuries Awareness/Tanya Hammond
Ben Hammond, with son James, in hospital after a reaction to the vaccine. Pictures: Vaccine Injuries Awareness/Tanya HammondPicture: Pictures: Vaccine Injuries Awareness/Tanya Hammond

Kalgoorlie State MP Wendy Duncan has raised the case with Premier Colin Barnett and former prime minister Tony Abbott, who wrote to the family expressing “sympathy for the rare adverse event that Mr Ben Hammond suffered following immunisation”.

“Sympathy is actually not going to help here,” Ms Duncan said in response. “This young family is in dire straits.”

The Kalgoorlie family are also fighting on another legal front — their home was raided by police in January last year on suspicions that methamphetamine was being manufactured at the property.

No evidence of that drug was found but police allege cannabis material and a smoking implement were discovered.

The family say it was being used by Mr Hammond to ease his muscle spasms and other physical ailments.

While she was still a Federal MP, Ms MacTiernan revealed in Parliament that she had asked WA Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan for an independent investigation of police behaviour during the raid.

“This family are very simply trying to get some justice and some reasonable compensation for the very severe trauma and loss that they have suffered — not because anyone is at fault but because they participated in the vaccination program that was asked of them,” she said.

Mr Hammond has pleaded not guilty to the cannabis charges.

A pre-trial conference for the negligence claim will be held later this year.

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