Anti-vaxxers Triumph? EU Court Says Vaccines Can Be Blamed for Diseases Without Proof

The ruling hinges on an unfounded association between the hepatitis B vaccine and the onset of multiple sclerosis in France

A nurse vaccinates a student against meningitis on at the University of Dijon in France on January 04, 2017.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP

Even when there is zero scientific proof that a vaccine is defective, the courts may rule that it is to blame for health problems under certain conditions, the highest court of the European Union ruled on Wednesday.

The ruling related to the case of a Frenchman, known as Mr. J.W., who like many of his countrymen was vaccinated against hepatitis B in late 1998-99, the Associated Press reports. About a year later, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Over 25 million French were vaccinated against hepatitis, according to the World Health Organization, before the J.W. case, and a handful of reports aroused concerns that hepatitis B immunization was linked to the development or relapse of multiple sclerosis. 

In October 1998 the French Ministry of Health temporarily suspended a program administering hepatitis shots at high schools. That move was widely misinterpreted around the world as a ban on hepatitis B vaccination, the WHO explains.

Back in the EU court today, it ruled that a vaccine can be considered defective and to be the cause of a disease even in the absence of clear scientific proof, as long as "administering of the vaccine is the most plausible explanation" for the condition. 

The ruling could be considered a triumph for the "anti-vax" (anti-vaccination) movement, which has been blamed – for instance – for recent outbreaks of measles in Minnesota this May, and in Europe two months earlier. Healthcare authorities even fear a resurgence of polio, a disease that has been largely eradicated. 

In the year 2016, only 37 cases of polio were reported worldwide and the disease is considered extinct except in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, according to the WHO. It strongly advises against heeding charlatans, maintaining: “There is arguably no single preventive health intervention more cost-effective than immunization.” It also says that one “is far more likely to be seriously injured by a vaccine-preventable disease than by a vaccine.”

Demonizing vaccinations

From their invention in the late 18th century, vaccines have been hailed by the medical community as a lifesaver. However, a pall was cast on their reputation by a paper published in The Lancet in 1998 that falsely associated measles-mumps-rubella vaccines with causing autism in eight children.

The scientific community quickly dismissed the paper, which had been written by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield and which, among other sins, failed to include a control group. The Lancet itself pulled the article after realizing Wakefield had made serious procedural errors and had undisclosed financial conflicts of interest. 

Despite any number of international studies contradicting Wakefield’s findings, cloudy, unfounded suspicion over vaccines persists due to fear-mongering tactics of unlicensed health "professionals" and a lack of understanding. 

However, a correlation is not a causation. The scientific community has spoken and what it says is there is no association between shots for hepatitis, a liver disease, and the onset of MS, which is a neurodegenerative disease. Among the detractors of the association theory are the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which cited the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine ruling on the topic from 2002. 

The World Health Organization and the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety concluded in 2002 that there is no association between the hepatitis vaccine and multiple sclerosis.

Further studies in the New England Journal of Medicine (2001), the Archives of Neurology (2003), JAMA Neurology (2011), and the Journal of the American Medical Association (2015), found no correlation between vaccines and the onset of multiple sclerosis.