This year’s flu vaccine shortage is turning into a public health crisis. As many as ten million more Americans are expected to get the flu this year because of the shortage, according to the group Corporate Wellness. The cost to the economy from lost work time due to sick days is expected to exceed $20 billion.
Americans are worried and furious. A recent Associated Press poll found that more than half of Americans believe that their own health or the health of a family member will be imperiled as a result of the influenza vaccine shortage.
Even more maddening are the waiting lines to get the vaccine. This is what we might expect in the old Soviet Union, but not from our health care system here in America.
The Wall Street Journal reports that other vital vaccines are also at risk. We could soon face a catastrophic shortage of vaccines to combat measles, chicken pox, tetanus, polio, and other life threatening diseases.
Here are the facts behind this public health crisis. In the 1960s and 1970s the United States had 26 vaccine manufacturers. Now we are down to just four. There is now only one vaccine manufacturer for each of the aforementioned diseases.
The explanation is politicians and trial lawyers. Drug companies can’t make profits from producing vaccines any longer because of the issue of product liability lawsuits.
In 2002 the entire global vaccine manufacturing industry had roughly $6 billion in sales. But in that same year trial lawyers sought $30 billion in damages against the industry in just one lawsuit. The damages sought by the lawyers were five times larger than the entire industry’s net income. And there are now over 350 similar lawsuits pending.
So the trial bar has destroyed a critical medical industry. Congress has the power to fix this crisis.
Why haven’t they? The answer lies with the massive political clout of the trial lawyers. Last year President Bush and Congress tried to shield American manufacturers from frivolous lawsuits and cap damages, but the legislation was squashed by the trial lawyers. The trial lawyers are the number one special interest contributor to the Democratic Party and to many Republican candidates, too. This year lawyers have donated some $100 million to federal candidates.
Senators John Kerry and John Edwards have both tried to pin the blame for the vaccine shortage on George Bush’s lapel. Recently, Kerry charged: “How can we trust George Bush to protect us from bio-terrorist attacks when he can’t even get us a flu vaccine?”
But wait a minute. Senators Kerry and Edwards sided with the trial lawyers and opposed the very legislation that could have averted the influenza vaccine shortage. And guess who two of the largest recipients of trial lawyer largesse in the entire Congress are? This year Kerry has received $21.7 million from lawyers and Edwards received $11.5 million. These Senators and more than 200 others in Congress voted with deep-pocketed lawyers over the health needs of children and the elderly, who need the flu vaccine most.
Members of Congress will return to Washington a few weeks after the election for a “lame duck” session to complete unfinished legislative business this year. We’d say–and we would venture to guess that most Americans would heartily agree with us–that the most important “unfinished business” is to protect our public health and our access to life saving vaccines. The first action should be to vote on a Vaccine Liability Protection Act to ensure that the current shortage of a vital vaccine never happens again.
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