In 2009, there was a pandemic of H1N1 ‘swine flu’ in Europe, and in response, millions of doses of a special vaccine were used throughout several countries on the continent. Mysteriously, soon after the vaccine was administered it was discovered that over 800 children in those countries who had received the vaccine were diagnosed with narcolepsy, a brain disorder that disrupts the body’s sleep/wake cycle. People who have this sleep disorder exhibit excessive daytime sleepiness, and experience uncontrollable bouts of sleeping in the middle of the day. The condition is thought to be caused by an autoimmune destruction of hypocretin-producing neurons that stop the brain from functioning normally. Today several lawsuits were filed against the State of Ireland, the pharmaceutical company that created the vaccine, and the Irish health minister claiming personal injury caused by the vaccine.
The vaccine is called Pandemrix and it was manufactured by the drug giant GlaxoSmithKline. Although the vaccine was not distributed or used in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control issued a statement on the Pandemrix vaccination when the issue first came to light, ensuring the American public that the vaccine had never been licensed for use in the country, nor is any other adjuvant influenza vaccine. An adjuvant is an oil-in-water emulsion that is designed to enhance the body’s response to the vaccine. The CDC is participating in an international study between the 2009 vaccine and the incidence of narcolepsy.
The Irish lawsuits are being overseen by the State Claims Agency. In the meantime, a lobbying group called SOUND (Sufferers of Unique Narcolepsy Disorder) that was established specifically for those impacted by narcolepsy linked to the vaccine now has more than 70 members, most of whom are either adolescents or children. They are seeking compensation for their members, and indicate that some are now developing other types of neurological disorders in addition to narcolepsy. Some compensation has already been provided in the form of reimbursement for medical expenses, as well as home tuition and learning support. Though those affected are largely children, the state is allowing adults two years from the time of a narcolepsy diagnosis to file suit. Children can file at any time until they are eighteen years old.
Narcolepsy is a disorder for which treatments are available, but at this time there is no cure. Each patient’s treatment is different depending upon the patient’s specific symptoms and responses. Medications that stimulate the central nervous system are the most frequent and effective therapy, though some patients are prescribed antidepressants and the drug Xyem, which helps improve nighttime sleep and may control daytime sleepiness. Some patients are successful with making certain lifestyle changes as well. These can include naps that are two hours in length, which have proven to provide periods of alertness as long as three hours and avoiding stimulants such as alcohol or nicotine. Exercise has also proven to be helpful in regulating sufferers’ sleep schedules, as well as in reducing the stress of the disorder.