AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Next we're going to look at a special court that handles only cases involving vaccines - claims, that is. It's known as the vaccine court and it's essentially litigating cases of those who believe they've been harmed by a routine immunization. NPR's Anders Kelto has been looking into the court and joins us now.
Welcome to the studio, Anders.
ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: Thanks, Audie.
CORNISH: All right. So first, many of our listeners might be surprised to hear that this even exists. How did the vaccine court come about?
KELTO: Yeah, so it started back in the 1980s. There were a number of lawsuits brought against drug companies from the parents of children who had had adverse reactions to something called the DPT vaccine. These were very bad reactions - seizures, in some cases, severe brain damage. And in at least two cases, the parents won lawsuits against drug companies for millions and millions of dollars. As a result, the drug companies said, well, this is unsustainable and this is not a lucrative business in the first place - we don't make a lot of money off of vaccines, so we are going to stop making them. And that threat really scared people.
CORNISH: So this was created out of fear, fear that there'd be vaccine shortages.
KELTO: Exactly. Doctors were scared. The government was scared. And they said, look, we need a steady supply of vaccines. This is important to public health, so we have to figure out a solution here. And what they did was they created this no-fault compensation program that essentially shielded drug companies from lawsuits over vaccines. So if you're a parent, your child has an adverse reaction, you cannot sue the drug company directly. You must come through this separate court that was set up.
CORNISH: So how does this work? I understand you actually spoke with someone who went through this process.
KELTO: Yeah, her name is Lisa Smith. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, she works for a jewelry company. And her story starts about 10 years ago on a fall day.
LISA SMITH: It was a Saturday. I got up that day and went to my son's soccer game. It was a beautiful day.
KELTO: And after the game, she ran some errands, including something she'd been meaning to do for weeks - getting a flu shot. She didn't really think anything of it until a few days later, when she noticed her legs were a little sore. And that soreness got worse over the next couple weeks.
SMITH: Almost like I'd been exercising or doing a whole lot of things where you just feel weak. But throughout the day they got progressively weaker until that evening I couldn't get off the couch at all.
KELTO: She had her neighbor call an ambulance, and when the paramedics got there and put her on a stretcher, she was in serious pain.
SMITH: I would just scream. The doctors later told me the nerves were all enflamed and it was like having third-degree burns on my legs.
KELTO: The paramedics asked if she had a flu shot. At the hospital, the nurses asked the same thing.
SMITH: I finally was like, yeah - why does everybody keep asking me if I've had a flu shot? And they said, oh, this is - paralysis is a known side effect.
KELTO: Lisa was diagnosed with something called Guillain-Barre syndrome, or GBS. It's a condition where the immune system attacks the nerves. A few thousand people in the U.S. develop it each year. Most cases are not linked to the flu vaccine. A few days after Lisa Smith was diagnosed with GBS, she got a visitor.
SMITH: I was still in the hospital, and my friend Jackie came to the hospital and said, Lisa, they know this happens. There's a form you fill out and there's a court that you file claims in.
KELTO: So she found a lawyer and took her case to the vaccine court. To win a claim in the court, you just have to show that you got a certain vaccine and developed a known side effect. GBS is now recognized as a known side effect, so for Lisa Smith, the entire process was pretty straightforward. A few months after she submitted her case, she got a call from her lawyer.
SMITH: The phone rang and it was - I knew their number. And she's like, are you sitting down? I was like, no. She's like, well, you might want to sit down because they just conceded your case. We don't have to go to trial, and you'll get a settlement.
KELTO: She accepted the settlement offer but is not allowed to discuss it. Last year, the court received 542 claims and it compensated 365 people, many of them for the flu shot and GBS. Settlements range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ten years after she first developed GBS, Lisa Smith is still dealing with some complications from the condition. She says the settlement helped, but for her, it really wasn't about the money.
SMITH: For me it was an acknowledgment that, yes, this happens. They know it happens. And that's - I want an honest discussion. Does this happen to everyone? No. But does it happen? Yes, it does.
KELTO: Like Lisa Smith, many people have no idea that the vaccine court exists. Anna Kirkland is a professor of women's studies and political science at the University of Michigan. She's written a book about the court.
ANNA KIRKLAND: Everyone talks about how we really should advertise it more and more people should know about it.
KELTO: But doing that creates a problem.
KIRKLAND: Critics, once they see a compensation - you know, you see this on websites and blogs and all kinds of sources - look, the vaccines were compensated for this, so this means that vaccines are dangerous and you shouldn't vaccinate.
KELTO: She says health officials have worried about this for years. If the court becomes too high profile and people keep hearing about payouts to vaccine victims, the public might think vaccines are more dangerous than they are and vaccination rates might fall. Kirkland says a few years ago there was an attempt to promote the court more.
KIRKLAND: So they had this whole public relations firm prepare this advertising campaign and then Congress just didn't fund it.
KELTO: So the vaccine court keeps humming away quietly in the background, hearing cases from people who are able to find it.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Anders Kelto. And Anders, I have one more question about Congressional funding. Why hasn't Congress funded this?
KELTO: Well, it's difficult to say. I've spoken with a number of people about this and they all seem to mention what you heard at the end of the story, this concern that if too many people know about this court then they're going to be scared that vaccines are more dangerous than they actually are. Vaccination rates might fall. But that's not to say that this is an elaborate conspiracy theory or anything like that. No one believes that they're trying to keep this court a secret. The court is mentioned on the CDC website. There's information about what to do if you have an adverse reaction and how to locate this court. And every single vaccine dose comes with information about possible side effects and information about what to do if you're harmed.
CORNISH: NPR's Anders Kelto. Anders, thanks so much.
KELTO: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.