This month, our theme is drug secrecy. Perhaps the most galling aspect of the climate of secrecy surrounding drugs is that once you've been permanently damaged by a drug, every possible obstacle awaits you in attempting to win compensation for your
Nobody has successfully sued a drug company in a British court of law, but some cases do occasionally settle out of court. The manufacturer of Opren funded a court-administered scheme, while ICI created a compensation scheme before legal liability was contested over the drug practolol. Nevertheless, says Keith Miles of the patient charity Action for Victims of Medical Accidents, usually such settlements, when divided among thousands of litigants, amount to "four pence and a ha'penny apiece". This is the case with the thalidomide trust fund, which pays annual grants to the 459 surviving British victims born deformed in the 1960s from the pregnancy drug. Most victims now find the money inadequate and are forced to exist on state benefits (BMJ, 19 March 1994).
The nub of the problem is that you have to prove in a court of law that a drug definitely caused your injury. Medical trials may show that a drug is capable of causing a particular side-effect, but an individual has to prove that this was the actual cause of his or her injury.
Pointing the finger at your doctor can be just as fruitless. The case law which governs negligence actions is generally interpreted to mean that any professional who acts in accordance with the accepted practice of his professional body cannot be charged with malpractice; and doctors don't need to inform patients of risks of drugs unless they specifically ask (see WDDTY vol 4 no 11).
Nevertheless, certain people do manage to get to first base. Presently some 20 families have got legal aid to pursue claims over the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccines Pluserix and Immravax which were both withdrawn by the government in 1992.
If you do decide to press ahead with a negligence case, make sure to find a solicitor highly expert in medical negligence cases (Action for Victims of Medical Accidents, 1 London Road, Forest Hill, SE23 3TP. 081-291 2793.) Interview him or her about the number of cases he or she has won and the size of compensation he has secured in settlement cases. Also, go for someone prepared to reinterpret the informed consent case law, which some experts believe has scope for a decision affirming your right to know a drug's side effects.
Don't be afraid to harness the media. Joan Bye (see p12) refused to lay down when her daughter died after inappropriate drug treatment. Extensive press coverage can be used as a bludgeon to force a settlement and also attract others who have been harmed.
Perhaps most importantly, save your greatest anger for campaigning to change the laws governing drugs and sign our enclosed petition. Until your right to know the truth about drugs is formalized into law, everyone connected with your health has the right to remain silent.