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The “vaccine court” is organized in a manner that reconciles science and policy, by ensuring that those with scientifically credible claims to vaccine injuries get generously compensated, Anna Kirkland explained. Kirkland, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Michigan, discussed the politics of vaccination in an event promoting her new book, which is titled “Vaccine Court: The Law and Politics of Injury."

The most recent wave of cases that the court sees have been from adults claiming influenza vaccine injuries like neurological damage, almost all of which are compensated through settlement, Kirkland said. She added that in contrast, between 2002 and 2007, the court dealt with 5600 autism-related cases, comprising over 30 percent of all cases seen since the court’s inception in the 1990s, until it was finally decided that autism was not a compensable vaccine injury.

Kirkland, whose research for the book was funded by the Program in Law and Public Affairs (LAPA) at the University, explained that the court was created to be very accessible, with attorneys and experts fully paid regardless of the outcome of the case, and that the court was organized in an inquisitorial rather than an adversarial manner. Rather than being heard by a panel of judges, each case is heard individually by the “Special Masters," appointed by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, who don’t screen out any expert or evidence, she added.

“A 75c excise tax on all vaccines recommended for use in children funds the reparations and payments to attorneys and experts,” Kirkland explained. She noted that pharmaceutical companies were exempt from liability, a rule that followed severe reactions to pertussis vaccines in the 1980s, which led to many vaccine manufacturers pulling out of the market and endangered the vaccination program in its entirety.

Kirkland, who also serves as the associate director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) at the University of Michigan, said that the evidence for determining what vaccine injuries are compensable lies in one of two categories. “On table” refers to an official list of all adverse reactions that occur within a certain time period of vaccine delivery, while “off table” cases require much more evidence and testimony to be brought in by the petitioner. The hierarchy of evidence used to determine a case is quite strict, but much evidence comes from the Vaccine Safety Datalink, which is a database used by epidemiologists to monitor and survey the effects of vaccines on a certain population, she noted.

In response to an audience question on whether the government was being unethical in forcing children to be given vaccines that could harm their bodies, Kirkland explained that any vaccines approved for use must go through a rigorous approval process mandated by the FDA and were deemed to be safe in clinical trials run on tens of thousands of children. She agreed with an audience member who noted in response that the diseases that the vaccines were preventing children against, such as measles, pertussis and whooping cough, were themselves incredibly harmful and often caused death.

“Whiter, wealthier areas tend to have higher vaccination exemption rates and incidences of children who have been given only a few of the recommended vaccines,” Kirkland said, adding that at the Waldorf school near her Ann Arbor residence, over 70 percent of children were not vaccinated. She noted that as exemption rates increased, many states tightened their laws, with California now only allowing exemptions from vaccination on a medical basis, having slashed the philosophical and religious exemption laws. She added that states with the most lenient exemption laws also had the highest rates of measles and pertussis, often because parents found it easier to just sign an exemption form than make an effort to take their children to get a vaccine administered.

The talk was sponsored by the Program in Law and Public Affairs and was held in Robertson Hall on Monday afternoon, Feb. 20. 

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