Dozens of NHS workers are fighting for compensation after developing narcolepsy from a swine flu vaccine that was rushed into service without the usual testing when the disease spread across the globe in 2009. They say it has destroyed their careers and their health
When nurse Meleney Gallagher was told to line up with her colleagues on the renal ward at Sunderland Royal Hospital, for her swine flu vaccination, she had no idea the injection she was about to have had not gone through the usual testing process.
It had been rushed into circulation after the swine flu virus had swept across the globe in 2009, prompting fears thousands of people could die. From the moment the needle broke Gallagher’s skin, her life would never be the same.
“I remember vividly we were all lined up in the corridor and we were told we had to have it. It wasn’t a choice,” she claimed. “I was pressured into it. We were given no information.”
The date was 23 November 2009 and Gallagher was one of thousands of NHS staff vaccinated with Pandemrix, a vaccine made by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).
Eight years later, her career in the NHS is a memory and she’s living with incurable, debilitating narcolepsy and suffers from cataplexy, a sudden, uncontrollable loss of muscle tone that can cause her to collapse without warning. Because of her condition, she can no longer work or drive.
People with narcolepsy experience chronic fatigue and difficulty sleeping at night. They can have night terrors, hallucinations, and a range of mental health problems.
Gallagher is not alone. More than a dozen frontline NHS staff are among around 1,000 adults and children across Europe who are believed to have developed narcolepsy after being given Pandemrix. Today BuzzFeed News can reveal for the first time their battle to gain acknowledgement for a government decision that they say ruined their careers and has dominated their lives since.
Gallagher and four other NHS professionals – two nurses, a community midwife, and a junior doctor – have told how they felt pressured into receiving the vaccine, were given misleading information, and ultimately lost their careers.
They are all suing GlaxoSmithKline seeking compensation for what they believe was a faulty drug that has left them with lifelong consequences and means they will require medication and support for the rest of their lives.
They have been forced to take legal action, along with almost a hundred other sufferers, to force the company and the government to accept the consequences of the rushed vaccination programme eight years ago. In contrast to the UK, European countries have already compensated people whose narcolepsy was linked to the swine flu vaccine.
The revelations come the same day that health secretary Jeremy Hunt launched new measures to improve patient safety in the NHS, in response to research conducted by experts at the Universities of Sheffield, Manchester, and York that showed prescription errors cause 1,700 deaths each year, could contribute to as many as 22,000 deaths, and cost the NHS £1.6 billion.
The BuzzFeed News investigation raises serious questions over the advice that was given to NHS staff at the time by the government’s chief medical officer, the chief nurse, and the national flu director that the vaccine had been “thoroughly tested” and was safe to use. That advice was shared in a joint statement by the Department of Health (DH), medical royal colleges, and trade unions, including the British Medical Association and Unison.
Normally vaccines undergo testing to make sure they are safe, and vaccination has been proven to save millions of lives across the globe. But Pandemrix was different. It had not gone through the normal process and was fast-tracked without the usual clinical trials.
Staff were also not told that the government had agreed a unique deal with GSK to indemnify the company for any problems with the vaccine.
The investigation also turns the spotlight on decisions by the UK government to continue using the vaccine even after other European countries suspended its use once evidence of a problem emerged.
Peter Carter, then chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, told BuzzFeed News it was “a matter of huge concern” that the vaccine had not been properly tested, contrary to what he was told at the time.
Meleney Gallagher was diagnosed in 2013 but only after years of being unable to stay awake and having cataplexy attacks several times a day, sometimes caused simply by laughing.