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Health: Vaccines

Volume 795: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the report by the Royal Society for Public Health Moving the Needle: Promoting vaccination uptake across the life course, published on 24 January, what steps they intend to take to counter misinformation about vaccines propagated in social media.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has a comprehensive vaccination programme that achieves high uptake nationally. Although there is misinformation about vaccinations circulating on social media, the public have a high level of confidence in the immunisation programme, health professionals and the NHS, and prefer to obtain information from those sources. Public Health England works closely with NHS England to ensure that health professionals and the public have up-to-date, accurate information on the benefits of immunisation.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Earl to the health brief. There is a little bit of complacency there. He is right that, overall, vaccinations for children are at a high rate but he will know that, in relation to MMR, this is not reaching the levels we would like. Throughout Europe, there have been record outbreaks of measles. This report, which came out a couple of days ago, showed that two out of five parents get highly misleading information on social media; obviously, this has some dampening effect on vaccination uptake. My understanding is that companies such as Facebook and others will not take down wholly inaccurate information in the interests of some kind of spurious balance. Will the Government reconsider their response, show a bit of gumption and take on the social media companies on this?

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, makes some very good points. It is outrageous that rumours circulating on social media or in any form on the internet dissuade people from taking up proper immunisation. The noble Lord is aware of the highly successful immunisation activities in this country and how effective they have been. As far as social media is concerned, the noble Lord will be aware of the internet safety strategy White Paper, which we will introduce this winter and which will have a statutory code of practice to ensure that social media firms take action on harmful content.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is almost exactly 300 years since Lady Mary Wortley Montagu came back from the British embassy in Constantinople and spread the practice of inoculation throughout this country and the whole of western Europe by her example? Does he think we can celebrate this tercentenary to press home the point about the great value of vaccination, and indeed the problems that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, has mentioned, by putting her on the new £50 note?

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Ridley makes a good point. I must admit that I was not totally aware of Lady Mary’s tercentenary but my noble friend is quite right that this country leads the world on this issue. For example, as I mentioned before, the work we have done on vaccination programmes, particularly since the introduction of the measles vaccine, has prevented an estimated 20 million cases and 4,500 deaths in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, reaching every child, eligible working-age adult and older person with vaccinations must be a priority for the Government and the NHS. Experts might not be trusted, but health professionals, as the Minister said, command a high level of respect when it comes to giving advice. What assessment have the Government made of the “making every contact count” approach among health professionals to ensure that vaccine advice is delivered across the health system?

My Lords, there are a number of areas where there is good contact between patients and healthcare professionals, particularly in early years with babies. A record is now kept of immunisation targets. When they have to be given, patients are given reminders by their doctors, and these are chased up. Later in life, students attending university are made aware through Universities UK and UCAS of what vaccinations are available and what they should have. The noble Baroness makes a very good point.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that pernicious and damaging misinformation about vaccinations not only threatens children’s lives in Europe and America, where there are good health services, but is even more damaging to children in the developing world, where there are not those services to deal with the consequences of low levels of vaccination and where childhood immunisation has been perhaps the greatest weapon in reducing childhood mortality?

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is quite right. We in this country are very lucky to have the NHS and, for example, the numerous leaflets that are trusted by so many people and available in surgeries across the country, which are not available to people in Africa. Any misinformation found on the internet can have very harmful effects. I could not agree more with the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the issue here is the herd immunity provided by mass vaccination. As my noble friend rightly points out, the influence and effect of social media are probably not assisted by unhelpful and ill-informed tweets by, for example, the President of the United States. Has the department done research that addresses when a population is at risk? Parents who do not get their children vaccinated are actually freeloading on the immunity created by parents who are responsible and do get their children vaccinated. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me whether the department has researched when immunity cover is compromised and put it in the Library.

I thank the noble Baroness. She makes a very important point about lowering immunisation where other individuals are not immunised themselves. I think the available figures say that 5% of parents refuse to let their children be immunised. This can have an effect. One can see blips in uprates in diseases. I will of course try to find out any further information and I will write to the noble Baroness and send a copy to the Library.