18th January 2024
EXTRACT FROM Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear
I discovered an example of legislation that curtailed lawsuits, generously compensated victims, and at the same time protected manufacturers, who ended up producing a safer product. The legislation, which created something called the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, was instituted by Congress in 1986 as a kind of antidote to a countrywide hysteria that had begun four years earlier—on the evening of April 19, 1982, to be precise.
That night, during an hour-long news program titled “DPT: Vaccine Roulette,” broadcast on WRC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., a new medical entity was given birth: the vaccine-damaged child. The program, illustrated with footage of severely handicapped children and heartbreaking testimonials from their parents, revealed that the pertussis (or “whooping cough”) part of the diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine could cause horrible neurological disorders and even death. Over the coming weeks excerpts from “Vaccine Roulette” appeared on NBC’s “Today” show and in newspapers, effecting a media-generated panic. Pediatricians throughout the country were deluged with calls from panicked parents asking if their kids were going to die from the shots they had been given.
Medical and governmental organizations promptly responded to the flawed expose. Physicians at the FDA issued a forty-five-page, sentence-by-sentence refutation, copiously footnoted with studies from top medical journals, showing that deaths and serious complications result from the DPT vaccine either never or extraordinarily rarely. Other health officials and individual pediatricians also went to the media with evidence of their own about the safety of vaccines and the dangers from whooping cough itself. They reminded parents too young to remember that prior to 1949, when the vaccine was introduced, 7,500 children died from whooping cough and another 265,000 came down with various of its symptoms, which persist for five to twelve weeks and commonly include vomiting, seizures, and pneumonia on top of the violent coughing fits that gave the disease its name.
Injections of truth stand little chance of stopping the spread of a metaphoric illness, particularly early on. Much of the media downplayed the reasoned responses from physicians. And within weeks of the broadcast an organization called Dissatisfied Parents Together was formed by a victim-cum-expert, Barbara Loe Fisher, who recruited members and financial support with anecdotes about her son, whom she “watched convulse, collapse and go into a state of unconsciousness within hours of his fourth DPT shot at age two.”
By 1984, following media appearances, protest marches, and congressional testimony by Fisher and other parents, and mammoth lawsuits, two of the three manufacturers of the DPT vaccine had gotten out of the market, creating a dangerous shortage of the vaccine. Fewer children were being vaccinated, and health officials forecast an epidemic of whooping cough. They pointed to Japan, where a decade earlier panic over the vaccine had resulted in a ban on the drug, a tenfold increase in cases of whooping cough, and a tripling of the number of whooping-cough-related deaths. In England as well, although vaccines were available, immunization rates fell by 40 percent during a scare, and over an eight-year period 100,000 Britons came down with the illness.
It was against such a backdrop that the U.S. Congress, in a rare show of clear-headedness, enacted the legislation in 1986 designed to do four things at once: prevent a public health crisis, shield major drug companies from inevitable litigation, assuage parents who believe their children have been damaged by vaccines, and free the courts of interminable and highly adversarial trials. Financed initially by an $80-million-a-year federal appropriation, and since 1988 through taxes paid by vaccine manufacturers, the no-fault Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has largely met all four goals.
Public concern over vaccine dangers subsided after the program went into effect, due also to a couple of massive studies published in prominent medical journals and reported in the media. With a combined sample of nearly 1 million children, the studies demonstrated ever more definitively the relative safety of the vaccine. A child’s odds of brain damage or death from the disease of whooping cough, these studies showed, clearly exceed risks from the vaccine.