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Vaccines come with risk.

Byline: The Register-Guard

President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress are right to focus special attention on improving the nation's capacity to develop and distribute vaccines quickly. No response to a bioterrorism attack or influenza pandemic would save more lives than rapid, widespread immunization of healthy people.

But it's inexcusable to exploit public fears of a flu pandemic as a means to grant the drug industry unjustifiable protection against lawsuits filed by injured patients. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is attempting to slip immunity for drug and vaccine makers into a defense spending bill without debate.

It's not just unseemly to concoct such a blatant Christmas giveaway for the pharmaceutical industry. Barring injured patients from seeking compensation undermines the very public health goals an effective vaccination program seeks to promote. Case in point: the Bush administration's 2003 effort to have health professionals and first-responders immunized against smallpox.

Some military personnel and others who received the smallpox vaccine suffered heart attacks and neurological disorders. When other first-responders were told there would be no compensation for anyone who experienced adverse reactions, the backlash stopped the program in its tracks.

President Bush would have Americans believe that greedy trial lawyers and runaway jury verdicts have crippled vaccine makers. Hogwash. The idea that U.S. vaccine production has suffered as a result of product liability lawsuits is a Trojan horse designed to sneak the administration's tort reform agenda into must-pass public health legislation.

Here are the facts: A study of "Legal Concerns and the Influenza Vaccine Shortage" by two Harvard University School of Public Health professors found only 10 lawsuits against the manufacturers of flu vaccine during the past 20 years. Moreover, pharmaceutical companies have been making heavy recent investment in vaccine R&D without any additional liability protection.

The common-sense solution to this issue has existed since 1986. It's called the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, a no-fault fund that shields drug manufacturers from most lawsuits by compensating patients who can prove they were injured by a vaccine.

All Congress needs to do is extend the VIC plan to any new federal flu pandemic vaccine. That solves the problem without creating the first blanket industry product liability immunity in the nation's history.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Congress mustn't immunize drug companies
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Dec 14, 2005
Words:368
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