Bioethics Blogs

Talking back to science?

By Stephen Rainey

In June 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that it was legal for a French citizen to sue a drug company for damages following a vaccination, and an illness. The ruling caused some consternation as it seemed a legal vindication of anecdote over scientific rigour.

This is a dramatic case, not least owing to the position in which vaccines find themselves, post Andrew Wakefield and the rise of the anti-vaxxer movement. Nevertheless, it forms a part of a wider narrative in which scientific activity is not always very open to questions from outside science. This broader theme is worth some scrutiny.

Vaccine injury

Shortly following a vaccination against Hepatitis B a French citizen, JW, found himself in declining health. Soon after the decline began, a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) was made. Having had no prior personal or family history of such an illness, and having been in good health prior to the inoculation, JW concluded that the injections must have been to blame for his developing MS. His assertion of this was not supported by scientific investigation. Rather, he could think of the vaccination as the only unusual event that preceded closely his sudden, unexpected development of the condition.

The French courts found themselves unable to agree on whether such a basis as this is sufficient to sue a pharmaceutical company. Eventually, the case was sent to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which ruled,

“…that the temporal proximity between the administering of a vaccine and the occurrence of a disease, the lack of personal and familial history of that disease, together with the existence of a significant number of reported cases of the disease occurring following such vaccines being administered, appears on the face of it to constitute evidence which, taken together, may lead a national court to consider that a victim has discharged his burden of proof.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.