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New flu strain prompts concerns over risks of being vaccinated

Posted: 09/11/2017


It has been widely reported that the UK is facing a potentially devastating outbreak of a new strain of the flu virus. This particularly aggressive strain of flu, called H3N2, has caused one of the worst outbreaks in 50 years across Australia and New Zealand.

Although it would be easy to dismiss flu as a minor concern, in 2016 alone, 1,531 patients were hospitalised with flu in the UK and 133 patients died as a result. The situation is particularly worrying due to NHS staff shortages and a lack of availability of beds, meaning many patients will be turned away from hospitals. The NHS revealed that nine in ten hospital bosses are concerned they will not be able to cope with a serious flu outbreak, while hospitals in Bath, Northampton and Cambridge have indicated black alerts, highlighting that they are running out of beds.

In the hope of reducing outbreaks, the Department of Health has announced an unprecedented push for all NHS workers to be vaccinated, and confirmed that this year more people than ever will be provided with a free flu jab. Pensioners, pregnant women, young children, those with health conditions such as asthma, plus all health workers are eligible for the vaccine, but each year thousands decline immunisation, and it is interesting to consider the reasons behind this.

How effective is the flu vaccine?

Even with 100% vaccination, there are of course instances where the flu jab does not work. Usually, the vaccine protects around 60% of patients. However, it is increasingly difficult to develop vaccines that defend against enough strains of the virus to offer adequate protection. Flu jabs are currently manufactured every spring based on which strains of the virus are expected to circulate the following winter, but mutation of the virus in the eight month period between manufacture of vaccines and the start of the flu season is inevitable. As a result, flu vaccines often provide little protection, particularly for the elderly who are more susceptible to aggressive strains of flu. In an analysis carried out by Public Health England, the Government’s health protection agency, it was revealed that over 65s who had been immunised were only 6% less likely to contract the virus than those who had abstained.

What developments are being made?

Vaccinology experts at Oxford University have developed a vaccine to prevent all Influenza A strains of the flu virus, which are the most deadly. This is currently being trialled in the NHS for the first time, and if successful, patients would only need to be vaccinated once every five years. This new vaccine is different because it aims to target the body of the flu virus which rarely changes between seasons.

What are the risks of being vaccinated?

Regardless of the efficacy of any flu vaccine, there are inherent risks involved in the principle of vaccination, as it contains active ingredients. These are the parts of the vaccine made from viruses or bacteria (also called 'antigens'), which challenge the immune system so that it creates antibodies to fight the disease.

Of course, particularly when it comes to the development of the flu vaccine, there are elements of guesswork, in terms of anticipating which strains of flu should go into the trivalent vaccine. It is right to be cautious about what we are putting into our bodies; musician Calvin Harris recently alleged that flu vaccines can contain toxic mercury, and whilst this is a misunderstanding (flu vaccines contain thimerosal preservative, a non-toxic compound related to mercury), worryingly vaccines can be defective. There have been cases where vaccines were contaminated, errors occured in the manufacturing process, or tests were not properly carried out, which can have devastating consequences.

Problems with the swine flu vaccine

Six million people in Britain, and more across Europe, were given the Pandemrix vaccine made by GlaxoSmithKline during the 2009-10 swine flu pandemic, but the jab was withdrawn after doctors noticed a sharp rise in narcolepsy among those who received it. There is now an established link between the Pandemrix H1N1 vaccine (known colloquially as the swine flu vaccine) and narcolepsy alleged to be as a result of improper testing during the manufacturing process.

Narcolepsy is an incurable neurological disorder which can cause people to fall asleep multiple times throughout the day. Some narcoleptics have night terrors and a muscular condition called cataplexy that can lead them to collapse on the spot. Narcolepsy can have an overwhelming impact on sufferers, affecting many aspects of their lives including driving and their working, personal and family relationships. Claims relating to this debilitating condition against the manufacturer of the vaccine are ongoing.

Is there a basis for claims involving a defective vaccine? 

If you have suffered problems as a result of a defective vaccine, you may be eligible for compensation under the Department of Work and Pension’s Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme or under the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979. The act has a wide scope and in order for a claim to be successful, you must prove the following: 

  • you were injured or suffered losses;
  • the product was defective in manufacture or design;
  • it was the defect that caused the product to fail and cause the injury; and
  • you were using the product as it was intended. 

There are time limits to consider and although there is a basic limitation period of three years from the accrual of the cause of action or, if later, from the date the claimant had knowledge of the damage, in addition, there is a ‘long-stop’ period of ten years from the date at which the product was last supplied by the manufacturer. 

Our specialist team is happy to provide initial advice and have an informal, no obligation chat with anyone who has concerns about an illness or injury as a result of a defective product. Please call freephone 0800 328 9545 or email clinnegspecialist@penningtonslaw.com for further information. 


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