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Health: Flu Vaccine

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 21 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will increase the availability of the flu vaccine this winter.

My Lords, I return by popular demand. This year, the Government asked influenza manufacturers to make available 15.2 million doses of flu vaccine for distribution in the UK. That is over 1 million more doses than were used last year. Although manufacturers worldwide encountered a delay in their production of seasonal flu vaccine, distribution started in September and by the end of November we expect that 13 million doses will have been delivered. This is similar to last year and represents nearly 90 per cent of the total available vaccine. General practitioners independently order flu vaccine from the supplier of their choice to meet the needs of their patients.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that those who telephoned my doctor’s surgery and other surgeries in October to arrange for their flu jabs were told that there was no vaccine available until the end of December? Can he appreciate that in those circumstances it was somewhat irritating to receive a rather expensively produced NHS leaflet that urges people to get their flu jabs because it is so dangerous to get flu, when they cannot do so?

My Lords, as I said, it is down to GPs to order the supplies of vaccine that they need for their patients. They know that they have a choice of six companies to go to. They know, presumably, the list of patients in their priority groups. It is down to them to secure supplies. If the GPs have difficulty, they should go to their regional co-ordinators and discuss the matter with them.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that, although the vaccine is of limited efficacy, it protects not only those who are vaccinated but more generally the community, to a degree, through herd immunity? That makes it all the more deplorable that this year, like last year, the vaccine has been slow to arrive in surgeries. It arrived in my surgery three months later than the GPs had been told and three months after you could buy it in Boots.

My Lords, the noble Lord, who is an eminent scientist, might like to look into the fact that across the world supplies of vaccines this year were behind schedule because of the difficulty of growing them. That was a scientific, not a management or financial, reason. I am sorry that he has been inconvenienced, but I agree with the rest of his comments about the herd benefits of having more of the population vaccinated. As I said in my reply, we will have distributed roughly the same number of vaccines by the end of November this year as we did last year.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the whole of my family were offered flu jabs about two months ago?

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord May, as to why the vaccine was not available in his surgery when it was available in Boots, why is there a shortage if it is still in Boots?

My Lords, nearly 98 per cent of the vaccine in this country is provided to NHS patents through GPs. Some 2 to 3 per cent is provided to private clinics and other private sources.

My Lords, would the Minister be so kind as to ensure that those who administer the vaccine, when it is available, warn patients that there could be a serious reaction lasting up to 48 hours? I admit to receiving a vaccination on Friday afternoon, which knocked me out for virtually the whole weekend.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is glad that the noble Lord has returned in fighting health to ask me that question. It is of course down to his GPs to give any necessary warnings to patients when administering the vaccine.

My Lords, what are the department’s plans for making adjuvants accessible? They are agents which enable vaccines to be more effective once they are administered.

My Lords, I am not briefed to answer that question but I will find out and write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, how many different strains of flu are there in the world? As the Minister knows, many of your Lordships travel the world.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that more research is needed, particularly into immune system response to adjuvants, and that any research should be shared by researchers and manufacturers to speed up the treatment supply during and before any pandemic?

My Lords, this Government strongly support research and close working between researchers and industry. I shall certainly look into the situation behind the noble Lord’s question and write to him and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker.

My Lords, the delay in supplying flu vaccines this year was, as the Minister said, caused in part by a failure of one of the flu strains to grow properly. That is accepted, but can he explain why the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that it would receive all the flu vaccines that it had arranged by November and why, nevertheless, a lot of people in this country will have to wait until December? Is it because the Department of Health did not react as quickly as perhaps it should have done to the warning from the European Medicines Agency in May that there were likely to be problems with delivery?

My Lords, the information available to me is that the CDC announced on 6 September that manufacturers were expected to distribute vaccine in the US up to and including January, which is a month longer than we are aiming to do in the UK.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many Members of this House have difficulty in getting to their local GP’s vaccination surgery? Would it be possible to arrange for your Lordships to receive their vaccinations here at Westminster?

My Lords, I think that that is a matter for the parliamentary authorities, but I shall certainly pass on the point.

My Lords, as my noble friend is doing so magnificently in his marathon answering session, can he confirm that the Answer to this Question referred to the whole of the United Kingdom, whereas the Answers to the two previous Questions referred to England? Is his department in regular touch with the Scottish Executive and the Government of Wales to learn from good practice in those two countries and to apply it to the rest of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, my noble friend is right: the numbers that I gave here relate to the United Kingdom and the previous Answers related to England. He is also right to assume that we work closely with our Scottish and Welsh partners and that we all learn from each other.

My Lords, the Minister obviously does not seem to be aware that vaccine was available in the Palace of Westminster last year and that many Members of this House availed themselves of that service. However, this year they have been told that it is not available.

My Lords, I do not think that that alters my previous answer that this is a matter for the House authorities.