When the U.S. flu vaccine supply was running low last year because of a contamination problem in England, Dr. Hanimi Challa found an alternative vaccine in Canada in order to ensure his elderly patients got flu shots.
Dr. Challa was confident of the safety of the two vaccines he administered, Fluviral and Vaxigrip, because he was familiar with the companies that manufacture them. He offered them to thousands of senior citizens in Ocala, Florida.
When Dr. Challa made the shots available in the senior-heavy area last fall, his business increased and he quickly gained a reputation as a local hero.
State health officials, however, were not as impressed by Dr. Challa’s good deeds since bringing in the vaccines, which are not approved in the U.S. from a British Columbia pharmacy was in violation of the law.
On Friday, when Dr. Challa appeared before the Board of Medicine for consideration of his punishment, about 100 of his elderly patients returned his kindness by driving to Jacksonville and crowding into a hotel meeting room to encourage the Board of Medicine to be lenient.
Some board members said that although Dr. Challa’s intentions were good, it is dangerous to bypass safeguards meant to protect Americans from potentially dangerous unknown drugs. "The thing that we would fear would be a doctor in this country could provide the vaccine and instead of all this support, you could have a horde of people calling for your lynching because it killed them," board member John Beebe said.
Another board member, Dr. Raghavendra Vijayanagar, recognized the action as a well intentioned response to a serious vaccine shortage. "I realize this doctor definitely broke the law. But we should really punish as light as possible – he’s trying to do something beyond the call of duty."
Dr. Challa’s lawyer argued that his client was simply trying to help people, and that he has already paid for his mistake. Dr. Challa’s malpractice insurance was cancelled after he was accused of wrongdoing and he was forced to pay more than $1,000 to have leftover vaccine destroyed.
His attorney also suggested it was somewhat hypocritical to prosecute doctors for administering Canadian flu shots when the U.S. government and some U.S. states themselves are trying to get Canadian vaccine to back up the inadequate U.S. supply.
The Board was obviously moved by the arguments of Dr. Challa’s attorney and the support of his elderly patients noting there were no ill effects from the unapproved vaccine, which was actually given to eight million Canadians.
Even though the potential penalties were extremely serious, the Board voted unanimously to let Challa off with a letter stating the Board’s concern about his action and requiring him to pick up some of the cost of his prosecution.
He must also attend a future Board of Medicine meeting to hear first-hand the stories about what can happen when doctors make mistakes.