Improper Flu Shots Can Lead to Injury — But A Little-Known Gov’t Program Can Help

Flu season is in full swing. Luckily, about 160 million Americans  — have already gotten their flu shots, which reduce their risk of suffering a week of splitting headaches and high fevers by 60%.

Most of these people leave the pharmacy or doctor’s office experiencing nothing more than some minor soreness. Yet for thousands of Americans, the vaccination goes awry — with consequences ranging from sharp, enduring pain to a loss of mobility. The medical bills and lost productivity that result from a botched vaccination can ruin patients’ finances.

Fortunately, patients can recoup these costs, and receive additional compensation for their suffering, thanks to a federal program designed to promote widespread vaccinations while protecting the unlucky few who experience rare but serious side effects.

One of the most common injuries that can result when receiving the annual flu vaccine is a condition known as Shoulder Injury Related to Vaccine Administration. SIRVA, which accounts for roughly 20% of all vaccine-related injuries, can occur when a doctor, nurse, or other vaccine administrator injects the shot at the wrong angle, administers the shot too high up on the shoulder, or injects the shot too deep into the muscle.

Some frequent SIRVA symptoms include pain at the injection site, soreness, stiffness, weakness, loss of the shoulder’s range of motion, and even frozen shoulder. SIRVA can also manifest itself as rotator cuff tears, tendinitis, bursitis, or adhesive capsulitis.

Often, patients continue to suffer chronic pain, reduced range of motion, and limited mobility for weeks or months. Physical therapy or even surgery may be required to correct the damage.

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Consider what happened to one Atlanta office worker. In 2015, the woman participated in flu shot day at her job. Immediately after receiving the shot high in her shoulder, she experienced severe pain. A few days later, she couldn’t move her arm. A year later, she still couldn’t fully lift her arm above her head.

Patients injured by the flu vaccine can seek compensation — but not from vaccine manufacturers. Federal law makes these drug companies immune to lawsuits.

While that might seem like a get-out-of-jail-free card for pharmaceutical firms, it’s actually smart public policy. Overall, vaccines are a huge net positive for society. Flu shots prevent over 7 million illnesses, 3 million medical visits, and 90,000 hospitalizations each year. That saves billions annually.

The government doesn’t want to discourage vaccine production by leaving manufacturers vulnerable to lawsuits. So in 1986, Congress enacted the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which provides money to people who have suffered pain, incurred high medical bills, and lost wages due to a vaccine injury.

The program, which is funded by a 75-cent surcharge on every vaccine administered in the United States, operates on the same principle as disability insurance:  Everybody chips in a tiny amount of money in order to care for those who get hurt through no fault of their own.

Since the program’s inception in 1988, courts have adjudicated thousands of cases and have awarded over $3.5 billion for vaccine injuries. Although flu-shot injuries occur most frequently, compensation is available for shoulder injuries caused by other vaccines, including tetanus, Hepatitis A and B, and HPV shots.

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Getting a flu shot is still a good idea. But these vaccines, while broadly safe, are not perfect. This flu season, patients who suffer an unexpected side effect like SIRVA should seek immediate medical care. And if they rack up steep bills, suffer extended pain, or lose productivity, they have every right to seek help through the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.

  • Durant is a lawyer at the Law Offices of Leah V. Durant, PLLC, in Washington, D.C., which specializes in handling vaccine claims.

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