The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) has decided that courts across the EU may now weigh whether a vaccine caused any illnesses, regardless of whether there is any scientific evidence linking the two.
Considered the highest court of the EU, the ECJ in Luxembourg- roughly the equivalent of the US Supreme Court- handed anti-vaxxers their greatest legal victory in recent memory. On June 21, they announced a judgment in a compensation case involving a French man, known as Mr. J.W.
In December 1998, Mr.J.W. was vaccinated against hepatitis B and received a booster shot in January 1999. The following month, he began to experience symptoms that led to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in November 2000. He was declared unfit to work in 2001, and died in 2011.
In 2006, he and his family sued vaccine-maker Sanofi Pasteur in an attempt to be compensated for the damage he suffered due to the vaccine. They claimed that the vaccine had a defect under the EU law concerning liability for defective products, arguing that the immunization caused Mr. J.W. to develop multiple sclerosis. Their legal representation brought forth that a body of circumstantial, or indirect, evidence, including the timing of the onset of disease, supported the link between the vaccine and resulting illness. France’s Court of Appeal dismissed the case after its ruling that there was no causal link between the hepatitis B vaccine and multiple sclerosis, a conclusion confirmed by numerous studies. However, because much of the case was based on what forms of evidence were admissible, it was eventually brought before France’s Court of Cassation (a higher appellate court that deals with questions of the law, not facts of a particular case). The Court of Cassation sought guidance from the ECJ as to whether accepting circumstantial evidence was consistent with EU product liability laws.
And on June 21, the ECJ decided that despite the lack of scientific consensus on the issue, a vaccine could be considered defective if there is “specific and consistent evidence” including the time between a vaccine’s administration, the individual’s previous state of health, the lack of any family history of the disease and a significant number of reported cases of the disease occurring following vaccination. In their statement, the ECJ said that such factors could conclude “the administering of the vaccine is the most plausible explanation” for a disease if all or numerous circumstances could be proven.
Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician and vaccines expert at the University of Pennsylvania, said the criteria used by the court made no sense, and I have to agree.
“Using those criteria, you could reasonably make the case that someone should be compensated for developing leukemia after eating a peanut butter sandwich,” Offit pointed out.
This decision comes at a terribly fragile time. Vaccine supplies are dwindling amid epidemics; manufacturers are skittish of vaccine production due to low profits and high liabilities; parents all over the globe are choosing to refuse immunizations; and vigilante violence against vaccination campaigns have religious sanction. With President Trump openly questioning the safety and use of vaccines, this is an unfortunate step the wrong way in the fight for truth and facts.
Immunization rates across Europe- and much of the world- have dropped dramatically in recent years. Less than half of all children in parts of Italy, Spain, Greece and Eastern Europe are vaccinated against preventable diseases. And predictably, numerous outbreaks of previously rare diseases have ensued, with measles, mumps and whooping cough being some of the most prominent. The ECJ decision opens the door to a dangerous precedent for the fear-mongering anti-vaxxer crowd to start crowding courtrooms in Europe, and perhaps lend credence to their outrageous claims in North America.
The court emphasized that liability claims for vaccine harm must be considered on a case-by-case basis. In other words, if scientific research is inconclusive, can an individual still plead their case with other types of circumstantial evidence? The ECJ has now decided yes. To be clear though, this judgment means courts can consider “serious, specific and consistent” circumstantial evidence alongside scientific evidence. It also ruled that the burden of proof remains on plaintiffs and that courts must consider relevant evidence from medical research. Alex Stein, an expert in civil liability law and medical evidence at Brooklyn Law School in New York, tried to temper much of the media sensationalism regarding the decision by emphasizing these clauses.
“Under this framework, credible medical evidence showing that the vaccine is safe will win the case,” Stein says. “Those who say that the ECJ decision has opened a floodgate for multiple vaccine liability suits are therefore mistaken.”
Fair enough. I do not want to participate in fear-mongering on the other side of things. My main issue with this whole situation is the long-term repercussions of this legal ruling. This growing climate of anti-scientific paranoia doesn’t just affect public health. It threatens the very viability of the vaccine world.
There are just seven companies in wealthy countries still make vaccines, with three of them based here in the US. Only four of these companies make 80% of the world’s vaccine supply, and right now? For these companies, demand is down, hostility is up, and profits are poor. And now, they can face new legal risks. I’m not suggesting that these companies should be above the law. If a vaccine is defective, and if there is insurmountable evidence of a link between diseases or negative health repercussions, these companies should absolutely pay. But with this decision, they are now facing new legal risks that can be argued by anyone out for blood since circumstantial evidence will now be accepted. This could prove to be deterrents from continuing their current business models.
Consider this case against Sanofi Pasteur. Sanofi Pasteur is the second-largest vaccine manufacturer, and is one of the few in the vaccine industry that manufactures shots not only for developed nations, but vaccines for yellow fever and cholera that typically only affect poor countries. I don’t have any contacts at Sanofi Pasteur myself, but something tells me serious discussions are ongoing now about the risk-benefits of continuing their practices.
The US has some fairly tough laws getting passed regarding compulsory immunization, but all of these could be endangered by this ECJ decision. Across Europe, families can now sue governments and vaccine manufacturers, without the use of scientific evidence, arguing that everything from chronic headaches and diminished academic performance, seizures, cancer, or any developmental issues are a result of vaccinations. US attorneys now have the option of citing the ECJ decision as grounds for revisiting the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which allows for states to mandate immunizations and granting manufacturers immunity from such cases.
In the absence of proof, scientific study or rational evidence, people living in the richest countries of the world are arguing that hepatitis vaccines cause demyelination of musculature, leading to MS; that measles/mumps/rubella combination vaccines reshape babies’ brains, rendering them autistic; that human papillomavirus vaccines cause mental retardation in young girls instead of protecting against cervical cancer; that ‘too many’ vaccines are given to babies stunting their natural growth. The anti-vaccine movement in the US is relentless, and thanks to the ECJ decision, every one of these crackhead theories can be presented in a European court of law, which is the last thing we need in this growing culture of anti-science and truth.