'I don't know how the Minister has let this go on' - Aoife Bennett shocked at 'adversarial' court case

Prior to the vaccine, she enjoyed a "very active life, a very active social life and school was no bother".

'I don't know how the Minister has let this go on' - Aoife Bennett shocked at 'adversarial' court case

“Adversarial” and “tough” is how the student teacher who settled a landmark swine flu vaccine case described her legal battle with the State.

Aoife Bennett, 26, developed the debilitating conditions of narcolepsy and catoplexy after receiving the GSK Pandermix Swine Flu vaccine in 2009, aged 16.

Prior to the vaccine, she enjoyed a "very active life, a very active social life and school was no bother".

But extreme exhaustion after the vaccine left her "going around like a slug". She missed most of Christmas, a time she loved. She had to repeat fifth year at school, gave up running and volleyball and found university a major struggle.

She was diagnosed with narcolepsy at the end of April 2011 and also developed catoplexy, so that with "even the slightest bit of emotion, some of your muscles lose control, my eyes might roll, my arms would drop, my knees would buckle and sometimes I'd collapse to the floor".

Although other countries, including Sweden and the UK, have dealt with people who became ill after receiving the Pandermix swine flu vaccine outside of court, Ms Bennett felt forced to challenge the State legally as no other avenues were available to her.

She said that a no-fault compensation scheme for vaccine victims would have been “ideal” but instead, she had to face a seven-year legal battle.

"We would have never taken this route," she said on RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke.

I don't know how the Minister has let this go on for so long. And how the Department of Health has let this go on into the courts.

“We were not expecting the level of questioning or cross-examination at all. I thought that as the plaintiff they'd go easy on me but that was not the case."

Ms Bennett, from Naas, Co Kildare, took a case against the Minister for Health, the HSE, and GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals, as well as the Health Products Regulatory Authority.

All the defendants denied liability.

Ms Bennett said that her family was not anti-vaccine but they “had an issue with this vaccine not being fully tested".

She said that the State took “a very adversarial approach” which made it “very tough” to watch her parents being questioned in the witness box but seeing such a fight in them gave her strength.

“I don’t know how we did it. I’m glad that it’s over now, that there’s no more days (in court),” she said.

I just hope that other families do not have to go through what we had to go through in court. It was very difficult, very time-consuming, draining, your life on hold. And I just hope that that won't be the case for the rest of the families.

The State is facing legal and other costs estimated at up to €4 million following the settlement on Tuesday. And 100 other families are taking cases nationwide after developing narcolepsy following the swine flu vaccine. Ms Bennett's solicitors at Michael Boylan Litigation are taking 79 of those other cases.

Gillian O'Connor, partner at the firm said that the next hearing for other young narcolepsy sufferers who the firm represents would be in May or June 2020.

Aoife Bennett at a hearing last month
Aoife Bennett at a hearing last month

Ms O'Connor said: “Narcolepsy is a life-changing, incurable illness, the patient looks alright but their life is awful. They don't sleep properly and they have dreadful hallucinations which can be tactile, so you feel like someone is actually pulling you out of the bed. Or that men are coming down the valley to shoot you. You wake up but you're paralysed.

"Some of them have catoplexy, if you get over-excited at all, like if someone told a joke or you got a fright, your knees can buckle and you collapse.

"The social side of it is hard because other people's lives move on but you're stuck. Holding down a job can be a problem. We have 79 more cases which we're pressing on with and we are happy and committed to proceed."

Ms Bennett, from Nass, Co Kildare, said that she will “realistically" have to job-share in her chosen profession of teaching. But the undisclosed court settlement has left her with “enough support to live my life".

Regulatory authorities licensed the use of Pandemrix, a vaccine made by GlaxoSmithKline, to combat the H1N1 virus. Key data, which indicated that Pandemrix had a ten times greater risk for serious side effects than a sister vaccine manufactured by the same company, was omitted from Irish medication reports.

The vaccine was rushed into service because of fears in 2009 of a global Swine Flu pandemic so Pandermix never fully completed clinical trials. GSK allegedly insisted that the Irish government indemnify the company or it would not supply the vaccine.

An Irish study later found that narcolepsy was 13 times more likely in vaccinated people in Ireland compared to unvaccinated individuals. Similar results were found in other countries that had licensed the vaccine.

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