Science – Did the European Union's highest court just deal a blow to science? “Vaccines can be blamed for illness without scientific proof,” read one headline about the European Court of Justice's (ECJ's) ruling on the case of a French man who claimed that a hepatitis B vaccine caused his multiple sclerosis (MS). Alarmed experts pointed out that no link between the vaccine and MS has ever been established and fretted that the Luxembourg-based court had opened the floodgates to large numbers of spurious lawsuits.
But experts on liability law are divided on what the court's decision, announced in a jargon-filled press release on 21 June, will mean for medical product liability in Europe. Dorit Reiss of the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco says that rather than dealing a blow against science or vaccines, the court sought to balance individuals' rights against society's interest in preventing disease. But Jean-Sébastien Borghetti of the Panthéon-Assas University in Paris says the ruling leaves a worrying amount of room for judges in the European Union to ignore certain kinds of scientific evidence.
The case involves a French man, called “W” in court documents, who received the three recommended doses of a hepatitis B vaccine between December 1998 and July 1999. In August 1999, W developed symptoms of MS, an autoimmune attack on the protective sheath covering nerves. In 2006, he and his family sued Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccinemaker, claiming that the vaccine had caused the illness. (W died of MS-related complications in 2011.) Other people have made similar claims, but large epidemiological studies have found no connection between the vaccine and MS.
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