- Mathilda is the youngest known person in the world to be diagnosed with narcolepsy
- Her mother Claire believed she was protecting her when she had Mathilda vaccinated against swine flu
- Mathilda began receiving Xyrem, a drug that helps with symptoms of narcolepsy
Bubbly: But Mathilda soon developed narcolepsy, suffering from terrifying nocturnal hallucinations and excruciating pain
When Claire Crisp agreed to have her three-year-old daughter Mathilda vaccinated against swine flu, she believed she was doing the best to protect her from a life-threatening pandemic.
In 2009, all children under five were invited to be vaccinated in a nationwide scheme.
Fortunately, the much-feared 2009-2010 outbreak never reached the pandemic scale expected. But Claire is convinced that the vaccine against it has left Mathilda with severe narcolepsy.
Mathilda is the youngest known person in the world to be diagnosed with the neurological condition, which causes sufferers to suddenly fall asleep during the day. Mathilda also had terrifying nocturnal hallucinations and excruciating pain.Now she is part of a protracted legal battle against the Government for compensation for vaccine-related narcolepsy. Last week, their case went to court on appeal.
This wrangling has continued despite the fact the Government’s scientists admitted two years ago that the vaccine, Pandemrix, could cause narcolepsy, having previously denied any link. In a statistical investigation, published in the British Medical Journal, they found children given the vaccine were 14 times more likely to have developed narcolepsy than unvaccinated children.
Claire, 44, a former NHS physiotherapist, thought she was playing safe when she had Mathilda vaccinated. Doctors had suggested her daughter could be at particular risk from respiratory trouble from swine flu because she was born with a minor throat condition, laryngomalacia, which obstructs breathing. Children normally grow out of it by three.
‘We took the swine flu risk seriously since Mathilda had only recently outgrown laryngomalacia,’ says Claire, who also has a son, Elliot, and another daughter, Liberty.
NHS clinics administered more than 900,000 doses of Pandemrix in 2009 and 2010. Mathilda’s first troubling symptoms developed within two weeks. Her sleep became disturbed, leaving her exhausted in the day. Then she began to suffer from hallucinations at night, thinking there were demons in her bedroom.
‘The symptoms just got worse — she wasn’t sleeping at night, and sleeping and crying all day,’ says Claire. ‘Nearly every time I turned round in the day, she was asleep.
‘She was slurring her words. She could not walk in a straight line, she suffered excruciating leg pains. She also became incontinent.’
Then she developed cataplexy, where she’d become temporarily paralysed for seconds by emotional triggers such as happiness or surprise, though staying conscious.
‘Her brother would say a joke and she would fall down,’ says Claire.
Within six months, Claire and her husband Oliver, a professor of theology, were housebound caring for Mathilda. She was taken to a children’s hospital for what Claire calls ‘a series of failed visits’.
Initially, doctors thought she had a brain tumour, but after tests they ruled that out. ‘The doctors quickly wrote us off as an anxious mother and a pain-in-the-a*** child.’
The family was being referred to a psychiatric unit when a locum doctor from India diagnosed narcolepsy, which normally appears at around the age of 15.
Doctors had suggested to Claire her daughter could be at risk from respiratory trouble from swine flu because she was born with a minor throat condition
Claire spoke to a friend’s cousin, who has narcolepsy. ‘They warned me that we probably wouldn’t get any help for it in Europe, but said Stanford University in California had the world’s best expertise. I got in touch with them.’
Based on blood samples sent by post, experts at the university confirmed the diagnosis.
The acknowledged world expert in the condition, Dr Emmanuel Mignot, is the director of the university’s Centre for Sleep Sciences and Medicine.
He is recognised for finding the cause of narcolepsy — the failure of special ‘wakefulness’ cells, called hypocretins, found in the brain’s sleep centre.
Dr Mignot has also identified a possible reason why the vaccine has caused narcolepsy: a part of the swine flu virus is similar to a part of the hypocretin cell.
The Pandemrix vaccine primes the immune system’s ‘killer’ cells to attack this part of the swine flu virus. But in a minority of patients, the killer cells also mistakenly attack the hypocretin cells, thinking they are swine flu cells. The risk is confined to people with a susceptible genetic make-up, Dr Mignot wrote in the journal Science Translational Medicine in 2013 — with around 20 per cent of the European population having this gene profile. However, he’s had to retract this article because the data could not be reproduced.
But Dr Mignot believes another possible link is adjuvants in the vaccine. These chemicals stimulate the immune system to produce a more powerful reaction to the inactive virus in the vaccine. In the U.S., swine flu vaccines have not used adjuvants nor have they been linked with narcolepsy. Dr Mignot says: ‘My opinion is that it was a combination of the adjuvants and the H1N1 [swine flu] virus particles in Pandemrix that made it very nasty for narcolepsy.’
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the pharmaceutical company which made the vaccine, says 795 people across Europe have reported developing narcolepsy since its use began in 2009. Convinced their daughter needed to be under Dr Mignot’s care — who would provide the expensive drug therapy she needed for free — the family moved to California four years ago.
Experts at Stanford University in California confirmed Mathilda’s diagnosis
Mathilda began receiving Xyrem, a drug that helps with symptoms of narcolepsy, possibly by affecting chemical messengers in the brain.
‘A course of Xyrem costs £12,000 a year,’ says Claire. ‘Some children in Britain receive it, depending on a postcode lottery. It was not available to us in Bristol.’
The drug treatment has been ‘life-changing,’ she says. Mathilda sleeps restfully at night for three hours at a time. Rarely does she experience hallucinations. Her sleep in the day is condensed to two naps, she no longer collapses when she is happy nor does she slur or wobble when walking.
While the Government acknowledges Pandemrix can cause narcolepsy, it has decided the condition doesn’t make people more than 60 per cent disabled, which is the threshold for compensation for any jab under the Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme run by the Department for Work and Pensions.
The scheme was set up to provide a clear, non-adversarial way of compensating people for damage from mass vaccination campaigns, meaning the government, not the manufacturer, ultimately foots the bill. A spokesman says: ‘Decisions on claims take into account the individual circumstances of each case and the latest available medical evidence. To date, no payment has been made in respect of immunisation against swine flu.’
Claire Crisp says this attitude is born out of ignorance: ‘The condition has destroyed about 70 million neurons within Mathilda’s brain’s sleep centre.’
Over the past four years, the scheme has not paid out anything. However, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) says that between 2009 and 2014, it received 191 reports of the Pandemrix vaccine allegedly causing narcolepsy and related conditions.
Likewise, no payouts have been made to young girls who have apparently suffered damage from the HPV vaccine campaign against cervical cancer — despite the fact that, according to the MHRA, more than 300 schoolgirls a year are reporting serious side effects.
Claire’s lawyers, Hodge Jones & Allen, have 68 people in a narcolepsy class action — two-thirds were children when vaccinated. Lawyer Peter Todd has been pursuing the cases with the Vaccines Damage Payment Scheme. ‘The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) initially refused our application because it would not accept there was a link between Pandemrix and narcolepsy,’ he says.
This was before the publication of the BMJ study. ‘Now they are saying narcolepsy is not a severe disability and does not qualify for compensation.’
Mathilda’s drug treatment has been ‘life-changing’ and she sleeps restfully at night for three hours at a time
After a court ruled that the patients could be compensated, a DWP appeal reversed this. Last week Mr Todd took an appeal against this ruling to a higher tribunal. He is also pursuing GSK on the grounds not of negligence, but under consumer protection law that the product wasn’t as safe as consumers could expect.
Claire stresses she is not anti-vaccine. ‘The problem is how the Government is dealing with the consequences of Pandemrix.’
This is echoed by Matt O’Neil of the charity Narcolepsy UK.
‘Vaccination campaigns only work if sufficient people volunteer for them,’ he says. ‘Anyone who suffers damage from doing something for the good of society should surely be looked after by society.’
A GSK spokesman told us: ‘While those vaccinated with Pandemrix have been shown in several published studies to be more likely to develop narcolepsy than those who were not, further research is needed to confirm what role the vaccine may have played in the development of narcolepsy among those affected.
‘Pandemrix went through a rigorous approval process . . . throughout the development of our pandemic vaccines there were no data to suggest a potential for an increased risk of narcolepsy among those vaccinated.
‘We continue to support ongoing work from other experts and organisations investigating reported cases of this condition.’
The universal use of Pandemrix in those aged under 20 was stopped in Britain in 2011.