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Troop Inoculation (Gulf)

Volume 400: debated on Monday 3 March 2003

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11.

If he will make a statement on the progress being made towards inoculating British forces in the Gulf against diseases which could be spread by weapons of mass destruction. [99857]

Immunisation is an important component of our armed forces' defences against biological weapons, alongside their detectors, training, warning and reporting systems, decontamination procedures, and other medical countermeasures such as antibiotics.

Anthrax used as a biological weapon represents a real threat to our armed forces, and independent expert advice confirms that immunisation offers safe and effective protection against it. We are expanding our programme of immunisation against anthrax for the armed forces in phases, and beginning with units held at the highest readiness, with the aim of making immunisation against anthrax routine for all service personnel. All United Kingdom units deployed or nominated to deploy in the Gulf have been included in the programme.

We have announced plans to vaccinate a cohort of nuclear, biological and chemical specialists and frontline medical personnel against smallpox. This is not in response to any specific or immediate threat but a sensible precaution, against a potential global threat, which will enable our armed forces to mount an effective response in the event that smallpox is used as a biological weapon. A number of those personnel included in the cohort have deployed, are deploying, or will deploy on operations in the Gulf.

Can the Minister confirm that, because of fears of a repetition of Gulf war syndrome, more than half of all armed forces personnel have refused to have inoculations, and only one in five is inoculated? If, as the Minister says, the inoculations are harmless, how can he justify sending troops into action who are unprotected against the most lethal weapon in Saddam Hussein's germ armoury?

I assume the hon. Gentleman is talking about anthrax, rather than about routine public health inoculations. A pedant would tell him that he is wrong, and that about 51 per cent, of those who were offered the vaccination have taken it. The percentage rises in the forces that foresee themselves being most directly affected, with the result that the percentage among those likely to be deployed on land is between 65 and 70 per cent.

This morning in a written statement the Home Secretary made an important announcement regarding civil contingency planning to deal with a potential terrorist dirty bomb or biological attack on London. Can the Minister tell the House how many members of the armed forces are expected to take part in such a home exercise, and whether all those individuals. professionals and reservists, have been issued with NBC protective equipment and clothing and vaccinated against smallpox and anthrax?

I have made it clear with regard to smallpox that we are vaccinating the cohort of people who would then have to vaccinate others in the event the very unlikely event—of an attack taking place. I cannot comment in detail on planning provision for potential terrorist attacks, other than to say that our plans are robust and that they will, of course, include appropriate protection for those involved.