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Whooping-Cough Vaccine

Volume 929: debated on Tuesday 5 April 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Social Services by what percentage the parental take-up of whooping-cough vaccine has dropped in the last year.

Complete figures for 1976 are not yet available, but returns from 68 of the 90 area health authorities in England suggest that the number of whooping-cough vaccinations for children under 16 was 4 per cent. lower than in 1975. A much more serious drop occurred in 1974 and 1975.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one factor in the continuing fall in take-up is the uncertainty engendered by the refusal of the Government to take liability for whooping-cough vaccine damage and to pay compensation? The United States Congress has passed into law the swine flu Act under which the American Government accept full liability for the damaging side effects of swine flu vaccination. Is he aware that a document, sent to me by Senator Edward Kennedy a few days ago, indicates that the relationship between the American Department of Health, Education and Welfare and its public is similar to that between the British Social Services Department and its public, and has similar responsibilities?

I am prepared to read carefully any document from any distinguished friend that the hon. Member has in the United States. On the question of compensation, this is not uppermost in the minds of parents. The questions they most consider are whether to get their children vaccinated, and the risks and the advantages. However, following representations from the Association of Parents of Vaccine-Damaged Children, I shall give further consideration to reaching a quick and early decision on the question of compensation. The issues are very complex and are being considered by the Royal Commission on Civil Liabilities and Personal Injury. I am not yet in a position to make a further statement.

Will my right hon. Friend undertake to remind parents of the positive advantages of vaccination? One of the dangers of the present campaign, with which I sympathise, is that people have forgotten what whooping cough is really like and the damage that it can do to small children.

I very much agree, and I deplore statements that have been made that throw doubt on the wisdom of vaccination. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation at its meeting on 29th March issued a statement saying that the continuing decline in the uptake of vaccination, in particular of whooping-cough vaccination, must be viewed with grave concern. The committee stressed that if this trend continued it could only lead to a recurrence of serious communicable diseases, such as diphtheria and polio, on a scale that has not been seen for many years. Already there have been more cases of polio in the past six months than in any similar period in this decade. I honestly hope that young parents will be guided by this expert advice which I have at my disposal.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the most important thing here is the future of the vaccination programme as a whole? Is it correct that his committee is about to make a further report to him, and, if so, will he publish that report?

The committee issued the statement that I have just read to the House. I have asked it to prepare a more substantial report, to review all the evidence that has been brought to its attention and to publish a report indicating the basis of its advice to me. I anticipate that this report will be available in the next few weeks.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the responsibility for the decline in the immunisation programme must rest clearly with the Government and not with the mothers asking for compensation? A week last Saturday, those parents decided that they would approach the Prime Minister and take the campaign into higher gear. However, they accepted a recommendation that they should stop campaigning for a fortnight in order to allow the Secretary of State to consult his colleagues in the hope that he will grant compensation.

I have told the House that at the earliest possible moment I shall see whether it is possible to make a further statement about compensation. The issues are very difficult indeed, and are not just for me to decide. I think that there are two main reasons for a fall in the level of vaccinations. The first is that too many people think that these diseases have been wiped out for ever and, therefore, they need not worry. The second is that there have been so many statements which cast doubt on the wisdom of the vaccination policy, in spite of all the advice which is brought to bear on me by my most expert advisers.