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For a More Nuanced Discussion of Vaccine Safety

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Federal health officials have worked overtime to assure the public that  vaccines are safe, and barely acknowledge any exceptions.

But there are exceptions, as our family knows well. In 2001, the government paid a settlement to my son Porter for the brain injuries he suffered from a DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus) shot that blew his world to bits. He was paid more than $2.7 million for pain and suffering and for lifetime care for his disabilities, which were later diagnosed to include mental retardation and autism.

The settlement came from a special legal system in Washington, D.C., called the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). Informally known as the vaccine court, it was established by Congress in the 1980s to adjudicate claims of vaccine injury and death, and to protect vaccine makers from liability for their products. When a claim is filed, evaluated and conceded, the fund allots money for the care of the vaccine-injured person. You and I pay for this with a surcharge of 75 cents added to the cost of every shot.

In Porter’s case, payments will be made for the rest of his life to cover the ambulance rides, the diapers and the one-on-one supervision he needs to get dressed. They pay for the special van that drives him to a sheltered workshop, where he shreds paper for eight hours a day. Also, for the caregivers who protect him when he gets frustrated and snaps his jaw against a table, trying to crack his teeth.

It wasn’t always like this. In February 1994, Porter changed from a healthy baby to a terribly damaged one in the course of a day, when his adverse reaction to a shot landed him in the emergency room with a raging fever and two-hour seizure.

What happened to Porter is mercifully rare, but hardly a one-off. Since its inception, the VICP has paid more than $3.1 billion to compensate nearly 4,600 cases of vaccine-related injury or death. Although the court has denied claims asserting that vaccines had caused autism, it has awarded compensation to some children who had autism-like symptoms or who, like my son, were later diagnosed as having autism, according to a study in the Pace Environmental Law Review.

Sarah Bridges

Sarah Bridges

Health authorities have not gone out of their way to promote the vaccine compensation program. It is so obscure that most people, and even some clinicians, don’t know it exists. I certainly didn’t and, despite the horror of what happened to our son, count myself as fortunate to have learned about it at all. A few lucky things occurred: The emergency room doctor who treated Porter corroborated his injury in medical records, and made a filing through the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System to document his DPT reaction. Furthermore, at the time of Porter’s injury I was working in a medical school while finishing a PhD in neuropsychology. My graduate advisor, a neurologist, encouraged me to pursue a claim, emphasizing that brain injuries were rare but were documented effects of DPT inoculations.

Yet when I told our pediatrician about our claim, she pointed to a wall poster from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of a smiling toddler, arm outstretched for a shot, and told me she didn’t know the VICP existed.

The vaccine court is supposed to deliver fast, efficient justice, with a lower threshold of proof than in a civil court. Yet the process took nearly eight years, due, in part, to the government losing records, changing lawyers and quibbling about how much to pay for things like diapers and therapy.

In the meantime, Porter racked up innumerable hospital stays, unpaid medical bills and a diagnosis of severe autism. He became increasingly hyperactive, jumping off tables and bouncing off walls. My other children tried to make sense of what had happened. His younger brother announced, “Porter is like a rabbit. Well, a brain-damaged rabbit.” Along the way, my marriage cracked. We grew estranged from each other since it was impossible to be mad at our son. Yet, while the vaccine court experience was grueling, the system ultimately worked. We’re thankful to the point of tears for the financial help Porter received.

Today, it seems that few things are as politically incorrect as raising questions about the vaccine program. If you do, you may be demonized or called a nut job. Despite what happened to our son, my two younger children were vaccinated and my personal view is that vaccines provide major health benefits. But trust in the program is shaky. That trust has been damaged by the lack of an honest and nuanced conversation about the rare side effects.

The fact that the government takes financial responsibility for the medical needs of victims like our son should be a very public part of the message. This more honorable message would go like this: “Vaccines have helped countless millions of people. The odds of serious harm are very small, though severe injuries do happen. In the rare cases that children are disabled, we’ll step up to pay for their care.”

Sarah Bridges is a psychologist, speaker and author. Her memoir, “A Bad Reaction,” chronicling her son’s vaccine injury, is published by Skyhorse Press.