Skip to main content

Influenza Vaccine Supplies

Volume 492: debated on Thursday 21 January 1988

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.12 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what arrangements they have made to ensure that adequate supplies of influenza vaccine are available throughout the country.

My Lords, influenza vaccination is a selective programme recommended only for at-risk groups. In recent winters the number of doses sold has varied between 1.4 and 1.6 million, but when it became known some weeks ago that demand had increased considerably the department liaised with the vaccine manufacturers for the supply to be increased to 2.1 million doses. At the very end, this represents a 25 per cent. increase over recent winters.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful Answer, as far as it goes. Is he aware that his campaign last summer to encourage vaccination against 'flu has on the one hand, increased the take up and the hurricane in the South-East which cut off electricity supplies for some days or even weeks, on the other hand, destroyed a great deal of vaccine which was either in doctors' surgeries or chemists? Therefore, there is a shortage now. In the neighbourhood where I live neither the chemists nor the doctors' surgeries have these supplies. Will my noble friend look further into the matter to see whether it is possible to make a further supply available in our area?

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right in that the Influenza Monitoring and Information Bureau last October held a press conference which suggested that since there had been no influenza epidemic for 10 years one was likely to occur this winter. As a consequence, demand for the vaccine rose and shortages began to be reported. However, I am informed that the department received no reports that supplies were affected by the storms or by the resultant interruption to electricity supply. But if my noble friend is still having problems in receiving supplies I undertake to look further into the matter with the department.

My Lords, will the noble Earl explain to the House what evidence is available that this 'flu vaccine actually works?

My Lords, I have no direct evidence upon me but I am reliably informed that it is effective for 70 per cent. of those who take it and lasts for a period of about one year.

My Lords, can the noble Earl tell the House whether we yet have an influenza vaccine which is claimed to confer immunity against all strains of the virus? He said that the vaccine is recommended only for at-risk groups. Does he realize that many members of the public feel that everyone should have the vaccine and that doctors and patients need clear and unequivocal advice about who should and who should not be vaccinated? Can the noble Earl give that advice?

My Lords, experience in the United States has shown that when general vaccination of the whole population is attempted, a small yet significant number of people will suffer from serious side effects. It is for doctors to decide whether vaccination is appropriate in individual cases.

My Lords, will the noble Earl confirm that the main reason that there is a shortage of vaccine is that the influenza monitoring bureau, financed by the pharmaceutical industry, put out a warning of a 'flu epidemic, which led to substantial demand and which certainly exhausted the supplies that were intended for priority groups? Can he say what was the evidence, if any, on which the bureau put out its warning and how much it cost the National Health Service to pay for something which seemed to be a form of scare tactic?

My Lords, I require further notice of that question. I am not aware of the cost to the National Health Service.

My Lords, will the noble Earl include Northern Ireland in his inquiries? Certainly two or three weeks ago I understand that supplies were scarce in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, as I said, I undertake to look at the current supply situation and will pay particular regard to Northern Ireland.

My Lords, may I welcome the noble Earl's statement that he will make an inquiry? May I ask whether in his inquiries he will consider to what extent it is right that a non-governmental body issues advice about an impending crisis rather than the ministry itself? Is it not for the department to take the lead rather than a body financed by the pharmaceutical industry?

My Lords, I understand that the Influenza Monitoring and Information Bureau was established last year and is financed by two of the three United Kingdom manufacturers of influenza vaccine. However, I take the point and I shall talk to the department about this.

My Lords, has the noble Earl seen the recent report that the epidemic is not now expected until next year? Will he ensure that there is sufficient vaccine available for next autumn?

My Lords, I shall take into account the remarks made by the noble Countess.

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that his undertaking to look into the shortages to which I have referred will be most reassuring and that I am most grateful?