This was originally posted at http://africanjungle.iblog.co.za/ on June 20th, 2010.
In the days of Edward Jenner, smallpox was a big killer. Jenner happened to talk to a milkmaid who claimed she was immune to smallpox as she’d had cowpox. He performed a risky experiment. Using a stylus dipped in pus from a cowpox pustule, he made scratches on the arm of James Phipps. Phipps developed cowpox but recovered fully. Then Jenner scratched Phipps’s arm with smallpox. Phipps survived. Jenner named his treatment vaccination after the latin ‘vacca’, meaning cow.
Prior to vaccination, people had used a technique called ‘variolation’. One method of variolation was to inhale the dust from dried and ground up smallpox pustules. It was a very risky procedure as people frequently caught smallpox from variolation, and died. Because vaccination used cowpox, which was less virulent, vaccination was safer. This principle, of using only attenuated (weakened) or dead microbes, is used in all vaccinations today.
One beneficial side effect of vaccination is ‘herd immunity’. Usually, a disease spreads when a person becomes infected and then spreads the infection to others through infection and/or contagion. However, if a microbe infects a person who’s been immunised against it, then the disease dies out before it can be spread by the person. If enough members of a population are vaccinated, the disease can’t spread at all. This is crucial because individuals with compromised immune systems (from e.g. AIDS) or certain allergies can’t be vaccinated, babies are vulnerable until they get their shots, and for some people, some vaccinations don’t take. When herd immunity is high enough, these groups are protected.
Vaccinations are an extremely effective disease fighting invention. Unfortunately, like all such things, they are imperfect. As mentioned above, in a small percentage of people they don’t take. Also, there have been instances where patients have actually been injured by vaccines. Because of this, the US Government set up the Vaccine Injury Compensation Programme (VICP).
75 cents from the cost of each vaccine dose made goes to a compensation fund for victims of vaccine injury. Cases are heard in the Vaccine Court. The Court is presided over by three Special Masters: currently Denise Vowell; George Hastings; and Patricia Campbell-Smith. They hold the title Special Master as they have, in addition to qualifying as judges, undergone training in science and medicine to enable them to better interpret the frequently technical evidence in court.
The standard of evidence in Vaccine Court is slightly lower than in a regular court so plaintiffs are marginally more likely to win. Also, there are “Table Injuries”, a list of recognised side effects of vaccines. If a person’s medical records show a Table Injury occurring shortly after a vaccination, the suit is automatically conceded. These steps are to ensure that the regular courts aren’t flooded with appeals. On the downside, this means that awards from the Vaccine Court are generally smaller than would be the case from a regular court.
In my next post, I will write about the Omnibus Autism Proceedings and the ultimately unsuccessful Test Cases.