Vaccination Tragedies are Rare

Vaccines work to prevent at least 2 to 3 million deaths each year worldwide.

Tragically, either because of errors or contamination, vaccines can sometimes actually cause people to get sick.

This can happen when health workers:

  • use a reconstituted vaccine after six hours – live vaccines can quickly become contaminated if they are kept and used for too long a time
  • mixup diluents – in addition to using the wrong diluent vaccination tragedies can occur when a dangerous medication is used instead of a vaccine’s standard diluent
  • improperly handle vaccines – breaking the cold chain
  • a vaccine is given to someone with a true medical contraindication

Fortunately, these situations are rare.

History of Vaccination Tragedies

With billions of doses of vaccines being given each year, it is likely not surprising that we see some problems. But when many of those vaccines are being given to kids, even one mishap, especially if it leads to life-threatening complications, is too many.

That’s why many safe guards have been put in place in the manufacturer and distribution of modern vaccines, so that we don’t see these types of vaccine tragedies:

  • the Cutter Incident, when, in 1955, at least 56 people developed polio and 5 children died after being vaccinated with inactivated polio vaccine that was poorly manufactured by Cutter Laboratories and still contained live polio virus
  • hepatitis-contaminated yellow fever vaccines – some lots of yellow fever vaccines used in the military in 1942 were unintentionally contaminated with the hepatitis B virus
  • the Lubeck Disaster – 75 children died and others got tuberculosis in 1929 Germany after there was a mixup between the BCG vaccine and the strain of Mycobacterium tuberculosis that causes tuberculosis. The BCG vaccine was supposed to be made with a weakened strain of Mycobacterium bovis bacteria instead.
  • the Bundaberg incident – 12 children died in Australia in 1928 after being given contaminated diphtheria vaccine from a multidose vial without preservative
  • tetanus contaminated smallpox vaccine in the 1890s and early 20th century

Although vaccines are much safer now, some rare incidents still occur.

Fifteen infants died and 75 children got sick in Syria in 2014 after they received a neuromuscular blocking agent, atracurium, instead of the measles vaccine they were supposed to get. How? The measles vaccine that was being used is mixed with a diluent, but instead of using the proper diluent, the health worker unintentionally used a bottle of atracurium instead.

In 2015, at least two kids died and 29 got sick in Chiapas, Mexico, among 52 children who were vaccinated. The children were reportedly given a BCG vaccine, the rotavirus vaccine, and/or a hepatitis B vaccine that day. However, the only vaccine that all of the sick children received in common was the hepatitis B vaccine. Since 130,000 doses from the same batch of vaccines had been given in the area, it was not thought to be a manufacturing problem or widespread issue. It was instead bacterial contamination of hepatitis B vaccine vials at that one clinic.

Fifteen children died in 2017 in a village in South Sudan after a poorly trained team that wasn’t adhering to WHO immunization safety standards used the same syringe to reconstitute measles vaccines over a four day period. They also didn’t keep the vaccine vials refrigerated.

“A single reconstitution syringe was used for multiple vaccine vials for the entire four days of the campaign instead of being discarded after single use. The reuse of the reconstitution syringe causes it to become contaminated which in turn contaminates the measles vaccine vials and infects the vaccinated children.”

Statement regarding findings of joint investigation of 15 deaths of children in Nachodokopele village, Kapoeta East County in South Sudan

As you can imagine, the conditions that led to these tragedies aren’t present when most kids get vaccinated.

Even in developing countries, most children get vaccinated by people adhering to WHO immunization safety standards. Why did they happened then? Both Syria and South Sudan have been rocked by war for years, leading to a breakdown in the ability to provide routine health care, even as basic as getting kids vaccinated. And Comunidad La Pimienta, Simojovel, Chiapas is a very poor part of southern Mexico.

These kinds of tragedies aren’t going to happen at your pediatrician’s office, as they don’t even have drugs like atracurium.

What Happened in Samoa?

Two toddlers died after being vaccinated at Safotu Hospital in Samoa.
Two toddlers died after being vaccinated at Safotu Hospital in Samoa.

In Samoa, four years after the deaths of the children in Syria, we are once again hearing about reports of deaths after kids were vaccinated with the MMR vaccine.

Two children in Samoa, both one-year-olds, died within minutes  of being vaccinated on the same day in the same hospital on the island of Savai’i.

Not surprisingly, as health officials investigate the cause, use of the MMR vaccine had been suspended in Samoa.

So what happened?

“Until the investigations have been completed and reported on we cannot say what did happen.

However, given the batch of vaccine involved had been in use in that country since August last year, and given the same batch of vaccine has been used in South American countries and the Caribbean island nations without incident, it seems unlikely that there was anything wrong with the vaccine.

The reports from the parents of the children affected on Friday indicate the reactions occurred within minutes after vaccination. This would preclude a response to the vaccine viruses as this takes at least a week. While anaphylaxis occurs within minutes and can be fatal when not treated the odds of seeing this twice in a day at the same place, given a chance of 1 in a million doses, is literally astronomical.”

Dr. Helen Petousis Harrison on What happened in Samoa?

Since it happened so quickly, it sounds like it could have been a mix-up with the diluent, as happened in Syria. A five dose vial of MMR is used in Samoa, which means that unlike premixed vaccines, it does have to be mixed with a diluent.

What about contamination? It is known that vaccine vials can be contaminated with Staphylococcus bacteria if they are mishandled. Although Staphylococcus bacteria can directly cause infections, they can also release a toxin that can cause toxic shock syndrome (TSS).

Considering how quickly these children got died though (within minutes), it isn’t likely that the vaccines became contaminated with Staphylococcus toxins. There have been reports of TSS following vaccination in the past, usually with vaccines that don’t use preservatives, but symptoms typically develop over four to 24 hours.

“This particular vaccine batch lot arrived to Samoa in August 2017 and has been in use since then. The same vaccine batch lot used in Samoa is also in use in a number of South American and Caribbean countries (Belize, Ecuador, St. Vincent, Trinidad Tobago, Chile, Aruba, Dutch Antilles, St. Kitts & Nevis and Cuba) with no reports of adverse events from those countries.”

Government of Samoa – Ministry of Health Press Statement

Could this be related to what happened to two other children in Samoa who had died after getting their MMR vaccines?

Almost certainly not. Those children, siblings, died years earlier, one in 2015 and the other in 2017. Neither died immediately after being vaccinated and there are reports that they may have had some kind of an immunodeficiency syndrome that contributed to their deaths.

“A number of media outlets are already covering these tragic events, speculating on the cause of death before the investigation is completed, and the stories have been picked up by the anti-vaccination movement.”

Government of Samoa – Ministry of Health Press Statement

That some folks would use these rare tragedies to scare parents from vaccinating and protecting their kids is shameful. But that’s the modern anti-vaccine movement

What to Know About Vaccination Tragedies

Kids shouldn’t get sick or die after getting vaccinated. Fortunately, they rarely do, except in extreme circumstances that can make it more likely for errors to occur.

More on Vaccination Tragedies

2 thoughts on “Vaccination Tragedies are Rare

  1. “Tragically, either because of errors or contamination, vaccines can sometimes actually cause people to get sick (Ed. and die; you forgot that part). This can happen when health workers:…”

    So, a reasonable inference from those two statements is that, on those “rare” occasions, the vaccine itself is never to blame, but rather “health workers.” Is this what you’re actually saying?

    Also, I’m curious: at what point in time is a vaccine “tragedy” no longer explicitly tied to the vaccine? After 2 weeks? One week? 72 hours?

    Like

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