The experience of Japan, where deaths from measles jumped after the MMR vaccine was withdrawn, has been seized on by the Government as evidence of the dangers of administering shots individually.

MMR vaccination was mandatory when it was introduced in Japan in 1989; parents who did not comply could be fined. But within three months, doctors started warning of side- effects. Before long, the number of children with problems related to the vaccine was 2,000 times higher than expected, with meningitis among the adverse reactions.

Japan decided to use another MMR vaccine in 1991 but the number of problems connected with the vaccine was still higher than usual. Three children died and others were left seriously handicapped, suffering from damaged hearing and blindness among other problems.

Tragic cases included a 21-month-old child who lapsed into a coma two days after being given the MMR vaccine and never recovered. There was a huge public outcry and in 1993 the Japanese government moved to a programme of single vaccinations.

Although it reconsidered using MMR in 1999, Tokyo decided it was better to continue immunising against measles, mumps and rubella separately.

George Kassianos, the immunisation spokesman for the Royal College of General Practitioners, says that in Japan measles and rubella vaccines are given separately and on the same day, while the mumps vaccine is only offered to parents who request it.

But since the decision to abandon the MMR vaccine, there has been a big rise in the number of measles cases, with 4,500 recorded between 1994 and 1998. Over the same period, there have been 85 deaths from the illness, compared with none in the United Kingdom.