These NHS Staff Were Told The Swine Flu Vaccine Was Safe, And Now They're Suffering The Consequences
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.
She switched jobs to be a district nurse, but the problems got worse. She said: “I was falling asleep in the clinic and driving home. I had cataplexy attacks when I was in the room with patients. I knew I wasn’t safe to practise.”
Although she sought help from occupational health services, her GP employer reported her to the Nursing and Midwifery Council and she was medically retired in April 2017. She received just 12 weeks’ pay for 20 years’ service in the NHS.
She said she had been denied an informed choice over the jab. “They can’t just do what they want with vaccines, otherwise it’s like Russian roulette and you can’t do that. I just want someone to stand up and to say they were wrong and apologise. Someone to be sorry for what they have done. I feel really angry.”
Gallagher’s vaccination was part of a concerted effort by the Department of Health to immunise as many workers as possible. At the time, there was widespread global concern about the spread of the swine flu virus and fears it could replicate the Spanish flu of 1918.
While the concern was to save lives, it is alleged that senior figures in the department, including the chief nurse, chief medical officer, and national flu director, did not give a full picture of the vaccine.
A swine flu leaflet produced by the DH for staff and patients ahead of the nationwide vaccination said: “The European Commission carefully considered all the evidence and recommended that [the vaccine] could be used.”
But it made no mention of the fact the European Medicines Agency had licensed Pandemrix under “exceptional circumstances” based on “mock vaccines” that did not include the actual ingredients that would eventually be injected into people. The EMA confirmed this approach was “unique to pandemic preparedness vaccines”.
The DH leaflet also made no mention of the government’s agreement to indemnify GSK for any problems with the vaccine. This was not widely known at the time, and the indemnity deal has never been published. In the summer of 2009, Wolf-Dieter Ludwig, chair of the German Medical Association’s drug commission, had warned EU governments not to bear the risk for pharmaceutical companies.
Nationwide vaccinations started in the UK on 21 October 2009, despite the fact that experts at the DH had known since May the flu was milder than first thought. On 22 October, ministers agreed to revise down the worst-case scenario from 19,000 deaths to 1,000.
Ahead of the vaccinations starting, Dame Christine Beasley, then chief nursing officer for England, told Nursing Times: “We’ve gone through exactly the same procedures as we do with seasonal flu vaccine and it’s as safe as a vaccine can be.”
On the day immunisations began, the RCN’s Peter Carter was quoted saying he was “entirely satisfied” the vaccine was safe because it had undergone “rigorous testing”.
Carter told BuzzFeed News: “At the time, Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, and Professor David Salisbury, the DH’s director of immunisation, were assuring people this vaccine had been thoroughly and properly tested, so people like me, in good faith, had no reason to disbelieve that and were happy to encourage people to have the swine flu vaccine.
“It is a matter of huge concern that several years later it’s now apparent this was not properly tested, and this will obviously shake the confidence of people for any future pandemic flu immunisation programmes. People have a reasonable expectation that what they are being told is accurate and it is a matter of regret that it clearly wasn’t.”
Salisbury told BuzzFeed News he believed a normal clinical trial would have been too small to pick up the problems with Pandemrix. “Given its rarity, any excess risk could only be detected after huge population exposure done through post-marketing surveillance,” he said.
He declined to comment on staff saying they felt pressured or on issues around informed consent.
Sir Liam Donaldson did not respond to a request for comment.
NHS trusts received six letters between September and October alone urging them to vaccinate staff.
In November 2009, Ian Dalton, then national director for NHS flu resilience and now chief executive of NHS Improvement, wrote for the Health Service Journal that vaccinating staff was the “highest clinical priority”. He stressed the need for staff to have information about “how it has been tested to ensure safety”.
By 4 February 2010, it was clear swine flu was not going to be the catastrophe many had feared and ministers agreed not to extend vaccinations to the public. The NHS vaccination campaign went on because staff were considered a priority group.
Dalton wrote to trusts again saying he expected improvement in the uptake rate despite the “predominantly mild illness”. In an update for the Health Service Journal, he warned against complacency and said the programme was a “key governance responsibility” for NHS boards.
By April 2010, around 40% of the NHS frontline staff had been vaccinated with Pandemrix, which was more than double the seasonal flu vaccine uptake of 17% in 2008.
Among them were Hayley Best, an intensive care nurse working in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, and Shane Keenan, a senior emergency nurse practitioner in Oxford, who worked for 35 years in the NHS.
Both said they felt pressured to have the vaccine. Keenan said he felt it was “emotional blackmail”, adding: “We weren’t informed it wasn’t properly trialled.” Best agreed: “It wasn’t that you were asked if you wanted it; you were told this was your appointment.”
Keenan told BuzzFeed News that after he got the Pandemrix jab his life “started to fall apart… By early February , I was having nightmares like you wouldn’t believe and visual hallucinations.”
Best said the effect on her was similarly dramatic, with severe suicidal thoughts within weeks.
Both said their symptoms were initially dismissed as depression and fatigue. Keenan was referred to specialists in December 2010. He struggled with work and was put through a capability assessment by his trust and moved down a pay band, decreasing his salary by £500 a month.
Eventually he realised he couldn’t continue. “I was a potential danger to patients. I went to occupational health and suggested ill health retirement.”
He said narcolepsy had “completely destroyed my life and my career. I worked damned hard to get to the pinnacle of my career. I lectured at Oxford University; now I can’t even stack shelves. I was injured in the line of duty. NHS staff are collateral damage.”
Best wasn’t diagnosed until October 2014. She switched jobs to become a district nurse but still struggled. “It really came to a head in 2014 when I started falling asleep behind the wheel of my car. I just got to the point where I would have driven to somebody’s house and not be able to remember doing it.” She was medically retired in October 2016, just before her 40th birthday.
She said: “I was given a vaccine that wasn’t properly tested. I am a big advocate for vaccination; my children have every vaccine that is offered.
“I was a good nurse, I know I was a good nurse. So where are my employers now? Where is my NHS? Where is my government? If you are going to encourage your frontline staff to have vaccines then the least you can do is have facilities in place if they happen to react to it. I feel completely betrayed. I have been abandoned. The NHS should have something in place if and when it goes wrong.”
Not everyone had been convinced the vaccine was safe for use. Switzerland’s medicine regulator Swissmedic refused to license it for use on under-18s in October 2009, and Michael Kochen, president of the German College of General Practitioners and Family Physicians, told the BMJ that same year that it had not been sufficiently tested to be declared safe.
The first hard evidence of a problem with Pandemrix emerged in 2010 when doctors in Finland noticed a dramatic increase in children with narcolepsy. Since then a number of studies in Europe and the UK have shown the vaccine is linked to an increased risk of narcolepsy in children and adults.
But even then, the Department of Health was not finished with the vaccine. While other European countries suspended its use in August 2010 due to the concerns, the UK used it to fill gaps in the seasonal flu jab supply in January 2011.
Professor Salisbury said at the time it was not a “second-class vaccine” and patients were “getting an effective vaccine and a safe vaccine”.
According to the EMA, more than 980 people across Europe have been reported as developing narcolepsy because of Pandemrix, with 872 people reported as developing cataplexy, including more than 500 children.
More than 120 children and adults are believed to have been affected in the UK – some because of vaccinations that took place in winter 2010-11, after the first studies showing the side-effects had emerged and a year after the swine flu scare.
Around 100 UK families are suing GSK claiming the vaccine was a faulty product. Their law firm, Hodge Jones & Allen, declined to comment but the case has been ongoing since October 2013. It could result in a compensation bill as high as £100 million.
In 2016, judges ruled in favour of Josh Hadfield, who received a maximum £120,000 via the Vaccine Damage Payments Act after the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), which administers the scheme, admitted Pandemrix caused Josh’s narcolepsy when he was vaccinated aged 4.
His mother, Caroline, described the effect of the vaccine to BuzzFeed News: “He would like to have a bath on his own but he can’t because there is a risk that he is going to fall asleep and drown. He is very introverted and doesn’t like going out on his own because he is scared of what might happen.
“He sleeps two to four hours a day at school and that is when he is fully medicated. He has his own small bedroom at school. He doesn’t have a normal childhood.”
She added: “I am not saying all vaccines are bad and people shouldn’t have them. It’s the fact the government won’t help people after something goes wrong.”
During a parliamentary debate in March last year, Tracy Brabin MP accused the government of “foot dragging”, which was “causing unacceptable and upsetting suffering and distress for the families involved”.
She said in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and France people who developed narcolepsy due to Pandemrix have already been compensated.
In 2014, 23-year-old nursery assistant Katie Clack died after jumping from a multi-storey car park. In a note to her family written on the day she died, she described the effects of narcolepsy as unbearable and urged her family to continue her legal action against GSK.
For the NHS staff who have developed narcolepsy, their ordeal has been compounded by being forced to battle with the health service and the government for recognition.
Junior doctor Ruth Tunney was in her third year of medical school on placement at Salford Royal Hospital when she volunteered for the vaccine.
“It was bundled in with the seasonal flu,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t remember reading anywhere that it hadn’t been tested. I didn’t see anything that told me it was a different vaccine. It was a generic consent form.”
She added: “I appreciate at the time they thought people were going to die and they had to act. I am completely pro-vaccination but they should acknowledge what has happened and do something about it rather than just denying it, which it feels is what is happening. It’s changed my life for the worse forever.”
Community midwife Susan Hamilton was formally diagnosed in 2012 after falling asleep while driving with her son. Her career was over, and six years on she faces having to sell her family home.
Hamilton said she tried reaching a compromise with her NHS trust but “was told categorically that they could not make a job for me and didn’t have any obligation to make a job for me”.
She said: “I have been forced out of my job because of a faulty drug and a trust who would not help me work around my condition or wait until I was stabilised on my medication. The NHS has abandoned us. We are damaged goods.”
Like other staff, she said was not given information about the vaccine: “We weren’t given a choice. It wasn’t informed consent.”
In response to this winter’s severe seasonal flu there are increasing calls for NHS staff to face mandatory vaccinations. On Twitter, former NHS England and Department of Health medical director Sir Bruce Keogh responded to such calls by saying: “I think a serious debate around mandatory flu vaccination is inevitable before next winter.”
Speaking to Buzzfeed News, Keogh said: “Every winter flu puts a significant strain on the NHS and a lot of people die. Both can be reduced with sensible vaccination programmes. A debate is emerging on how best to protect both vulnerable patients and staff in the NHS, particularly since there is such a big difference in vaccination rates between NHS organisations and over a third of flu is transmitted by asymptomatic people, meaning staff could unwittingly be spreading flu to their patients. No one wants that.
“Some people are in favour of mandatory vaccination, which could be across the board or only as a prerequisite for working in certain areas. Others are opposed on the basis of freedom of choice. My sense is that staff should have their choice informed by evidence of benefit to themselves, their patients, and their organisation along with any potential personal risks or preferences.
“My view is that the focus on increasing staff vaccination rates should be on ensuring that organisations can demonstrate they have offered every single member of staff the chance to have a vaccine and made it easy for them to do so. This is what organisations with high vaccination rates do.”
On the specific issues around Pandemrix and the lack of support for the staff affected by the vaccine, Keogh said: “It would seem both fair and reasonable and in keeping with the values of the NHS that if somebody suffers as a result of trying to do the right thing for others that they would be looked after appropriately.”
Matt O’Neill, chair of Narcolepsy UK, a charity supporting some of the families affected, believes there should be a public inquiry into the use of the vaccines, what was known at the time, and how staff have been treated since.
He said: “NHS staff vaccinated with Pandemrix have been treated pretty disgustingly. Having a vaccination is an act you take on behalf of the community, for the benefit of the herd. When it goes wrong it makes sense that the herd should look after you.”
“More staff would sign up for vaccines if they saw the NHS admit when it went wrong and that it supported staff. At some point, there will be another pandemic and we will need staff to have confidence they will be looked after if something goes wrong.”
In 2010, Andy Burnham, the Labour health secretary at the time, and other ministers contributed to a review of the handling of the pandemic. It said: “[Management] personally would prefer to be criticised for doing too much rather than the alternative, where there could have been unnecessary deaths from doing too little.”
Guy Leschziner, a consultant neurologist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation Trust, has treated a number of people who developed narcolepsy after having the swine flu vaccine.
On the use of Pandemrix, he told BuzzFeed News: “It’s always easy with the benefit of hindsight. What we have to remember was what was going on at the time, which was that we thought we were going to have an epidemic of a very severe flu. Now today, knowing we didn’t have quite the epidemic we thought we were going to have, you might come to a different conclusion, but at the time we didn’t know that Pandemrix was associated with narcolepsy in comparison to the other vaccine.”
GSK refused to answer questions from BuzzFeed News but issued a statement saying further research was needed to understand what role Pandemrix played in the development of narcolepsy. The company did not renew its licence and the vaccine is no longer authorised by the EMA.
On its website, the EMA said: “Understanding the link between narcolepsy and Pandemrix remains the subject of investigations and may have implications for the future use of similar vaccines.” It said GSK had agreed to continue investigating the vaccine.
Guido Rasi, the executive director of the European Medicines Agency, said: “Immunisation has helped us to bring some major human diseases under control. Worldwide, vaccines are saving the lives of approximately 9 million people every year, more than the whole population of Austria. Today, no child in Europe has to die from formerly common childhood diseases.”
He accepted vaccines were not 100% risk-free but added: “No medicine is. There is a one in a million chance that an adverse event happens. In Europe, we are actively monitoring the safety of medicines, including vaccines, and also looking at all reported side effects. These are recorded in a database and reviewed regularly to identify any potential problem at an early stage.” Around a million reports are made every year.
The Department of Health said its decision to use the vaccine was based on evidence and advice from experts but declined to comment due to the ongoing legal action. Although the DWP has previously admitted causation in the case of Josh Hadfield, it refused to answer questions, saying it would not detail its policy on Pandemrix unless a Freedom of Information Act request was submitted.
Swine flu was a potential health crisis and there are no suggestions ministers, the DH, or GSK acted with anything other than the best of intentions to save lives. But fear of the virus and misplaced confidence in the vaccine’s safety led to staff feeling pressured to have the jab, and not being given all the facts. Eight years on, those staff are still waiting for their sacrifice to be recognised.
“It has been soul-destroying to lose my career,” said Meleney Gallagher. “I used to say if I could go to work and make one patient smile then I’d have done my job, but I couldn’t do that because I couldn’t even risk laughing with a patient in case I collapsed.
“I am angry. I put a lot into my career, I gave a lot. I would have expected a bit of respect for the effort I put into the NHS.”