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Vaccine-Damaged Children

Volume 927: debated on Tuesday 8 March 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether he will conduct further research to establish more definitely the number of vaccine-damaged children.

My Department is already supporting research intended to establish with greater precision the extent of serious reactions to vaccines. The project covers the whole of Great Britain. This research is already in progress and this Department will continue to give it support.

In the light of the conflicting evidence which is now coming forward, particularly the revelations in The Sunday Times last weekend, will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider his decision not to institute any form of public inquiry? Will he hold one—or, rather, will he at least authorise the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to hold a series of public meetings, particularly into the effects of the whooping cough vaccination, so that it can all be aired in public to try to alleviate some of the worries of a number of confused mothers who really do not know what is going on?

I recognise the hon. Member's concern, which I think is widely shared, that parents are confused. With regard to the article in The Sunday Times, it must be acceped that there will always be differing shades of medical opinion on matters of this kind, but the hon. Member will know that the joint committee is a distinguished group of specialists. They have weighed all the evidence and have stated clearly and unequivocally their belief that the hazards to children from contracting whooping cough exceed the hazards associated with immunisation. The joint committee is meeting again later this month. It will again consider all the facts and evidence relevant to the vaccine. In view of the interest shown in the House and the country, I have now asked the committee to prepare for publication a review of the evidence about whooping cough vaccine and to set out in full the basis of its advice to me.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that making public that review of evidence is a quite inadequate answer to the legitimate question posed by the hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt)? Is he aware that evidence from parliamentary answers, from medical experts and from Press investigations has revealed that his Department's case for refusing compensation and for refusing an independent inquiry is based on inadequate, unreliable and misleading data and that that has shaken public confidence in the immunisation programme? Instead of criticising Back Benchers on both sides and parents who disagree with him, will my right hon. Friend now accept a proposal from me for a meeting between himself, Back Benchers on both sides, medical experts on both sides and parents, so that we can amicably resolve these problems and seek to allay the genuine public concern about the immunisation programme?

I have made no derogatory comments about Back Benchers. I believe that on both sides of the House this is a matter of genuine concern. I have now replied to over 100 Questions on this subject from my hon. Friend. Every answer that I have given is information which is available and which is before the joint committee. Therefore, I trust the advice which is given to me by the joint committee. However, the idea that my hon. Friend has put forward is an interesting and novel one. I shall in a day or two be meeting the chairman of the joint committee. I shall put to him my hon. Friend's suggestion that we should have a meeting in the House of Commons, with Members drawn from both sides of the House, so that the chairman and others may answer questions to try to alleviate uncertainty and. I hope, to discourage my hon. Friend from his campaign.

May I appeal to the House? Unless we have shorter questions and answers, many hon. Members who thought that their Questions would be called will be unlucky.

Will the Secretary of State admit that the anxiety about whooping cough vaccine is now seriously affecting other vaccination programmes? Would it not make sense temporarily to suspend the use of this vaccine while it is all looked into? Would that not make great sense for everybody?

No, it would be wrong to do that, as, on reflection, I think the hon. Member will agree. The joint committee is appointed from among the 22 most distinguished people in this field and they are my advisers. They have considered all the evidence and the hon. Gentleman knows the conclusion that they have reached. It would not be in the interests of patients to do as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I recognise—I am, in fact, very concerned—that uncertainty in the minds of parents about the efficacy of this vaccine is affecting the take-up of vaccine relating to diphtheria and tetanus. The double vaccine for diphtheria and tetanus is freely available for children for whom whooping cough vaccine is not appropriate. The hon. Gentleman mentioned polio. He knows that I have already appealed to the public, to parents, to make use of this safe and reasonable vaccine in order to prevent the spread of polio, which is making a disturbing return to this country.