Post-vac syndrome — the forgotten COVID victims
Credit: Oliver Pieper German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach wants to help those who suffer from serious side-effects from COVID-19 vaccines. For those affected, this is a long overdue step.
In March 2021, exactly two years ago, when COVID-19 infection figures were skyrocketing in Germany, 30-year-old Sascha Schwartz was very eager to get his vaccination appointment. To him, the vaccine was a way to regain his freedom while making his own small contribution to getting the pandemic under control. Back then, he was sporty and active, full of energy, and always in a good mood, Schwartz recalls.
Until March 25, 2021, when he got his Astra Zeneca jab. Since then, nothing has been the same. "I've never felt such stark helplessness and powerlessness as I have over the last two years. I feel trapped in my own body and have the feeling that I no longer exist," he tells DW.
On the day he got the vaccine, he started to suffer from fever, dizziness, and a headache. This later expanded into a never-ending tale of woe. The Cologne native has made a list: he has recorded no less than 96 symptoms in the two years. The worst, he says, is the "brain fog" that robs him of all concentration. Reading a book has become impossible for him. "You go on autopilot. It's like being drained of vitality. It's like you're in a stupor, where stimuli no longer register and you feel electricity in your head."
He received a second vaccination in June 2021 with BioNTech's mRNA vaccine, hoping that might help to alleviate the symptoms. But it only made matters worse. Schwartz is a care worker for mentally ill and disabled patients. In the summer of 2021, he took some of them on a trip to an amusement park, where he suffered a breakdown because of sensory overload. Schwartz was confined to his bed for weeks, completely exhausted, and has been on sick leave ever since.
The post-vac knowledge-gap
"It took me six months to find an immunologist who would take me and my complaints seriously," Schwartz says. "Before that, they always said this is psychosomatic, the vaccination is safe, this can't be; even though I described the connection and said that I'm not depressed or anything."
Schwartz describes himself as a "post-vac victim." According to Germany's Infection Protection Act, vaccination damage is "health damage caused by the vaccination that goes beyond the usual extent of a vaccination reaction."
The Paul Ehrlich Institute, the German Federal Institute for Vaccines and Biomedical Drugs, has registered 333,492 cases of suspected harmful vaccination side effects and 50,833 suspected cases of serious side effects since the start of the vaccination campaign: a reporting rate of 1.78 per 1,000 vaccine doses.
Schwartz is one of them. The Marburg University Hospital, which has set up a post-vac outpatient clinic, finally diagnosed him with hyperinflammation of the immune system as a result of the vaccination. But to date, no therapy has worked, and 12 weeks in a psychiatric ward have been just as unsuccessful as a rehabilitation program that focuses on activation.
"In bad phases, I can just stay in bed and stare at the ceiling. My body tells me in the morning when I wake up what my day will look like," Schwartz says.
He does not want to resign himself to his fate, and founded a self-help group for people who have developed severe health problems after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. It has 70 members, who meet once a month to exchange ideas. At least those who can come. Many cannot, because they are just lying in bed, says Schwartz.
He sees a great lack of understanding for post-vac patients. "When we post something on social media, we receive a lot of hate messages along the lines of: 'It's your own fault, you got vaccinated, you have to expect that,' or 'What you're writing isn't true at all,'" Schwartz says.
So far, he has not received a cent of compensation from the state. His health insurer rejected his application for blood purification treatment, which would have cost €15,000 ($16,000). Soon he will have to make do with his unemployment benefits, making it impossible to pay off the €4,000 in debt he has accumulated over the past two years.
Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach now wants to help people with the long-term consequences of a COVID-19 infection or vaccination. He aims to make sure vaccination damage is formally recognized more quickly, and his ministry is planning research on the consequences of Long Covid and Post-Vac Syndrome to help those affected.
First civil lawsuits by vaccination victims
Tobias Ulbrich's law firm in Dusseldorf has been specializing in vaccination injuries and their consequences. The lawyer represents 750 individuals and has filed 130 lawsuits against BioNTech and Moderna.
Ulbrich complains that the German government provided insufficient information to the public about the side effects and deliberately downplayed them. "We have a federal minister who for quite some time has dubbed vaccination as free of side effects," Ulrich tells DW, referring to Lauterbach.
On April 28, the first civil case against BioNtech will be heard in Frankfurt: A 57-year-old woman claims to have suffered heart damage as a result of the vaccination. Further court proceedings in Frankenthal, Dusseldorf, and Munich will follow soon.
"In our case, civil claims are always against the manufacturer," Ulrich explains. "And ultimately it is then the manufacturer who can again demand exemption from liability, i.e. repayment by the federal government. So from a purely economic point of view, we have the Federal Republic of Germany as an opponent and only on paper, the vaccine manufacturer."
In their contract with the EU Commission, vaccine manufacturers were exempted from any liability. So if Ulbrich's client wins in court, it will not be Moderna or BioNTech who foot the bill for legal fees, damages, and compensation – but rather the German government. Ulbrich is in good spirits and believes his clients will win in court.
Post-vac patients need to be taken seriously
Jördis Frommhold, a physician for internal medicine and pneumology, and a recognized expert on Long Covid, has observed that children and adolescents are also affected by vaccination side effects. Ultimately, she says, history is just repeating itself in Germany: Acceptance for those affected is almost non-existent — just like it was in the beginning with Long Covid patients.
In retrospect, should Germany perhaps have adopted a different vaccination strategy? No, says Frommhold. The primary goal, she says, was to bring the COVID-19 pandemic to an end and prevent serious illness or death. After every vaccination, however, there is unfortunately also the risk of vaccination side effects, she adds.
"If we now simply have very, very many vaccinated individuals, then we also have, even if the percentages are low, a high absolute number of patients with vaccination side effects," she says. "The challenge is to now take care of these people."
This article was originally written in German.