Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Adverse reactions to a 2009 swine flu vaccine profoundly harmed a small minority of those who received it.
In 2009, when swine flu (also known as H1N1) was spreading around the world, vaccines to counteract it were developed quickly, then fast-tracked through the approval process. One of those vaccines, Pandemrix – manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline – had an unexpected side effect. An estimated 1 out of every 58,000 people who received it developed narcolepsy.
The website of the US Centers for Disease Control makes this sound like no big deal:
This disorder is caused by the brain’s inability to regulate sleep-wake cycles normally, but it can be treated with medication and behavior modification. [bold added]
In fact, narcolepsy is a life-altering illness. Patients are apt to fall asleep at a moment’s notice, and to collapse without warning due to a sudden loss of muscle control. For many, this means they’ll never drive a car again, or hold down the same kind of job.
In 2018, investigative medical reporter Shaun Lintern wrote a lengthy article about UK health care workers then fighting for financial compensation. It began this way:
When nurse Meleney Gallagher was told to line up with her colleagues on the renal ward at Sunderland Royal Hospital, for her swine flu vaccination, she had no idea the injection she was about to have had not gone through the usual testing process.
It had been rushed into circulation after the swine flu virus had swept across the globe in 2009, prompting fears thousands of people could die…Eight years later, her career in the [National Health Service] is a memory and she’s living with incurable, debilitating narcolepsy…
The article quotes Shane Keenan, a nurse practitioner, who says narcolepsy “completely destroyed my life and career. I worked damned hard to get to the pinnacle of my career. I lectured at Oxford University; now I can’t even stack shelves.”
We’re introduced to ICU nurse Hayley Best who began suffering ill effects shortly after receiving the 2009 vaccination. Initially misattributed to fatigue and depression, it took nearly five years before her symptoms were recognized as narcolepsy. Soon afterward, she “was medically retired…just before her 40th birthday.”
We also read about Katie Clack, a daycare worker who was given the vaccine at age 18. She developed narcolepsy, and then experienced disturbing side affects from the drugs used to treat it. At age 23, she committed suicide, reportedly leaving behind a note explaining that her poor quality of life had made matters unbearable.
None of these people gave their informed consent to this vaccine. Told to get the shot by their employers, they weren’t warned it was riskier than other vaccines. Quite the opposite. Lintern points to statements made in early October 2009 by the UK’s chief nurse, Christine Beasley, who was then responding to reports that some nurses felt hesitant:
We’ve gone through exactly the same procedures as we do with seasonal flu vaccine and it’s as safe as a vaccine can be…I’ve got a lot of confidence that [nurses] can look at the evidence and really think very carefully about what it means for them, their colleagues and indeed for their patients…Even if it’s only a very mild illness, you’re likely to be off three or four days, probably a week. So I would encourage nurses not just to take my word for it but to go and look at the evidence around the vaccine so they separate out the myths from the reality. [bold added]
As one physician quoted by Lintern admits, “at the time we didn’t know that [GlaxoSmithKline’s] Pandemrix was associated with narcolepsy in comparison to the other vaccine.” Indeed. Dots need to be connected before officials realize something unusual is happening. That process can take months, or years.
The authorities gambled, and real people lost. Swine flu emerged in January 2009. As Lintern reports,
Nationwide vaccinations started in the UK on 21 October 2009, despite the fact that experts at the [Department of Health] had known since May the flu was milder than first thought. On 22 October, ministers agreed to revise down the worst-case scenario from 19,000 deaths to 1,000. [bold added]
What else was happening in October 2009? Switzerland declined to approve the Pandemrix vaccine for pregnant women, as well as for people in certain age groups. In Germany, the president of that country’s College of General Practitioners and Family Physicians was telling the British Medical Journal testing wasn’t extensive enough to consider Pandemrix safe. He himself would be refusing it.
In other words, 11 years ago, UK health workers were urged to get an unnecessary vaccine. A small number of those workers experienced life-altering adverse reactions. Rather than helping them rebuild their lives, the UK government then added insult to injury. It compelled these people to seek financial compensation through the courts.