HL Deb 26 March 2002 vol 633 cc159-62

2.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are taking action to anticipate the possibility of a serious outbreak of measles.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, the Department of Health is working closely with health authorities with the aim of increasing the current rate of MMR uptake in order to reduce the risk of measles. The department has also taken advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on strategies to respond to any resurgences of measles. mumps and rubella.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Do the Government accept that some parents are worried about the triple vaccine because it deals also with mumps and rubella, and because of rumours about side effects such as autism? What are the Government doing in order to reassure the public?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, let me make it clear that the Government's independent expert committee, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, and indeed the Committee on Safety of Medicines, have reviewed the kind of suggestions that the noble Lord has raised. Their advice is that there are no new data relevant to the safety of MMR vaccines. The Committee on Safety of Medicines has concluded that the current scientific evidence does not support a causal link between MMR vaccination and autism or bowel disease. I fully accept that there is a need to ensure that scientific information is available to parents who are concerned. It is our intention to let parents have that information—not in a lecturing way, but by giving them the data so that they can then make their own judgment.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although there is no reason to suspect a link between the measles vaccine and autism, what is absolutely clear is that it will not make a hoot of difference whether three vaccinations are given at one time or they are given separately? Is it not the case that the immune system of babies is perfectly capable of dealing with a thousand vaccines at one time; and is not the campaign for separate vaccines the most illogical of all the campaigns against this matter?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with the noble Lord's point. If we go back to the arguments that Dr Wakefield has used, he is suggesting that there should be a year's gap between each of the injections. That would take a five-year timetable in order to give the six vaccinations that would be necessary as compared to the MMR, where two vaccinations are needed: the first between 12 and 15 months, and the second some three years later. In addition, if single vaccines are used, there is absolutely no guarantee that children will have all six vaccinations.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, is it not equally important to draw the attention of the public, and particularly of mothers, to the dangers of not vaccinating? Should not the evidence now available from the German town of Coburg— where a large number of mothers were persuaded not to have their children vaccinated, and where there is now a very serious outbreak of measles—be brought to the attention of the public?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, that is an important suggestion. It is clear, if one looks back over the past 20 years or so to 1980, that there were nearly 140,000 notifications of measles and 26 deaths; by 2001, the number of notifications had been reduced to 5,773 and the number of deaths was down to one. I have no doubt whatever that the introduction of the MMR vaccine has proved to be highly effective in this country.

Lord Winston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that all the professionals concerned in this matter are totally supportive of the way in which the Government have handled the issue? Does he further agree that the root of the problem lies in the rather irresponsible reporting of what is clearly anecdotal evidence which has given rise to alarm? Is not the base of the problem the difficulty of educating the public in the notion of risk and the need to focus on this in the future, so that we can prevent this kind of thing happening again?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, there is much in what my noble friend has to say. That is why the public information programme that the department is now developing is focused on providing information for parents, through NHS Direct and other mechanisms, about the scientific evaluation that has been undertaken so that they can make an informed decision. It is worthy of note that the recommendations on MMR that we have received have been supported by the WHO, the BMA, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Nursing and the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I am the eighth of nine children, all of whom had measles. Why has measles become such a serious disease? Has the virus mutated? In my childhood, it was a normal disease that most children expected to get.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I have heard that theory put forward. but there has always been a high cost to some members of the community who catch measles. I quoted the figure of 26 deaths in 1980 compared with today's figures. That shows beyond any doubt as far as I am concerned that the introduction of MMR was one of the most effective public health measures that has been undertaken in this country. I have no doubt that it was the right decision at the time and that we are right to support MMR now.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, can the Minister bring us up to date on uptake figures for the MMR vaccine? I understand that there is a considerable difference between urban areas and country areas, with the country areas doing much better. Does that not show that countrymen have a lot more sense than urbanites?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Not exactly. my Lords. I do not think that the figures quite support that interesting supposition. The noble Lord is certainly right to suggest that the uptake figures give cause for concern. The latest figures that we have, for 1999–2000, show an 88 per cent uptake. We need to get up to the middle 90s to have what is described as herd immunity. There are enormous variations. The figures for London are particularly worrying, with some of the London boroughs down to the 60 per cent mark. However, there are also urban areas with very high figures. Barnsley, which is not entirely a rural community, has 94.9 per cent coverage.

Baroness Wilcox

My Lords, I have a personal interest to declare in that my daughter-in-law is going to have a baby on 24th July, which will make me a grandmother. She asked me whether I think that she should have the triple vaccine. When I was a little girl, my mother used to send me out to play with children who had measles so that I would catch it and get it over and done with while I was very young. Now I believe that the triple vaccine is a wonderful thing and has advanced us enormously. My daughter-in-law wants to know whom she should ask to get an authoritative opinion on whether it will be the right thing for her.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I very much recommend that she asks her general practitioner. She may also contact NHS Direct, which will also be able to give informed advice.