A setback for public health?

A recent judgment in a vaccine compensation case in Europe has set alarm bells ringing globally. The case involved a French national, known as “J.W” in court documents, who had developed multiple sclerosis (MS) a year after he had been vaccinated against hepatitis B in 1998.

J.W had been vaccinated with the hepatitis B vaccine between the end of 1998 and mid-1999. According to the court documents, in August 1999, J.W developed symptoms of MS, an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. In 2006, he sued pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur, which had made the vaccine, claiming that it had caused the illness. He died in 2011.

Given a lack of scientific consensus over the safety profile of the vaccine, the European Union (EU) court has allowed circumstantial evidence to determine the cause. The judgment has got the global public health community worried as it may set a precedent for similar cases.

Why vaccines are crucial

Vaccines are among the most effective public health interventions that save an estimated 2.5 million lives each year. However, they can have side effects, including serious ones, in a small proportion of people. Most of these are minor, from mild fever, headache or soreness which resolve quickly. The benefits far outweigh the risks.

The use of the hepatitis B vaccine for example, highlighted in the EU…