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Last week's questions

The daily H1N1 question: Nov. 8 to 13 Add to ...

Q: Why is the vaccine not considered safe for children under 6 months and what magically happens at 6 months to make it safe?

A: The issue is not safety, it is efficiency. Children under the age of six months do not have fully developed immune systems so they do not produce a good immune response to the vaccine. That is why it is recommended that caregivers and close contacts of young babies - parents, siblings, daycare workers - be vaccinated.

Swine flu snippets:

Readers have reacted strongly to news that Taliban prisoners-of-war in Afghanistan received the H1N1 vaccine from their Canadian captors:

- "This is a credit to the Canadian Forces and those men and women who don its uniform. The provision of medical aid to prisoners-of-war is not to be discriminated against on the basis of nationality or status."

- "Are Canadians that apathetic that we put the well-being of enemy combatants ahead of our own children?"

Tuesday, Nov. 10

Today, we a number of related questions:

Q: Is it true that I can't sue if the swine flu vaccine makes me sick or kills me?

Q: I've read some pretty frightening things about vaccines on the Internet. How many people do they actually kill?

Q: I read that in the U.S. vaccine makers can't be sued. Is that true in Canada too?

Q: Why have the vaccine producers been given blanket immunity shielding them from any adverse reaction lawsuits?

Q: When I got the H1N1 vaccine, I had to sign a waiver that said I couldn't sue. Is that valid?

A: In the U.S., federal legislation has, since the 1980s, protected vaccine makers against lawsuits related to childhood vaccines. In July, that protection was extended to makers of H1N1 vaccine. This was done because, in the litigious U.S., drug companies had essentially threatened to stop producing childhood vaccines, which are not particularly profitable and there were fears that production of the flu vaccine would be delayed by legal concerns.

The inability to sue manufacturers does not mean those who are vaccine-damaged cannot receive compensation. The U.S. has a "vaccine court" that hears cases and awards compensation.

In Canada, vaccine manufacturers do not have blanket protection from lawsuits and suits related to harm caused by vaccine are usually settled out-of-court. One province, Quebec, has a no-fault insurance program that operates in a manner similar to the U.S. vaccine court. Over two decades, there have been about 100 claims and a couple of dozen substantial awards.

The Canadian Paediatric Society estimates that about five children a year will potentially suffer a serious adverse event from vaccination. Bear in mind that there are almost 400,000 children born a year and they get approximately two dozen shots by the time they hit kindergarten.

Health officials describe the number of severe adverse reactions to influenza vaccines as "very rare." The biggest danger is a life-threatening allergic reaction to a component of the vaccine such as egg proteins. In rare instances - again, numbers are hard to come by - a person can suffer from Guillain-Barré syndrome after vaccination. The autoimmune condition, which is characterized by paralysis that can be reversed, is related to fever. The disastrous 1976 swine flu vaccination campaign was derailed by reports of numerous cases of Guillain-Barré. But infectious disease experts note that the flu itself triggers far more cases of Guillain-Barré than the vaccine.

On the question of "immunity" from H1N1 vaccine lawsuits (a clever play on words), the reality is a bit more complex. In the contract between the government of Canada and GlaxoSmithKline, Ottawa promises to "indemnify" anyone harmed by the vaccine. Practically, what this means is that, if you suffer harm from the vaccine, you can sue and the government, not GSK, will be responsible for paying the settlement.

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