Polio vaccine withdrawn over BSE contamination fears

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A polio vaccine that has been given to millions of children and adults was withdrawn by the Government yesterday amid fears it could be contaminated by mad cow disease.

A polio vaccine that has been given to millions of children and adults was withdrawn by the Government yesterday amid fears it could be contaminated by mad cow disease.

The Medical Control Agency ordered GPs to return all unused doses after the finding that it had been produced using foetal calf serum from the UK.

Guidelines in 1989 banned the use of bovine material in medicinal products, but despite repeat assurances from Medeva, the maker, the Department of Health found it was in breach of the guidelines.

The company, which has made one-third of polio vaccines used in Britain since the early 1980s, stopped producing the vaccine last month.

Dr Peter Fellner, chief executive of Celltech, which bought Medeva from Wellcome and owned it from January to October this year, said records relating to the batch of vaccines in question did not "fully clarify" its BSE-free status. "We had assurances from Wellcome that there were no issues over the vaccine and passed on these assurances to the Department of Health. What Wellcome told us was found not to be accurate," he said.

Professor Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, said the risk of anyone being infected with vCJD, the human form of BSE, was "incalculably small". The recall comes as it was announced that a report into Britain's BSE crisis will be published next week after a 30-month inquiry.

Medical experts urged parents to continue getting their children immunised, warning that any fall in vaccination levels could result in polio returning to this country for the first time in decades. Worried parents and patients have been advised to see their GPs or contact NHS Direct.

Despite the obvious breach of the guidelines, which were updated in 1999, no action can be taken against any company as the guidance does not become legally binding until next year when it will be covered by an European Union directive.

Andrew Kemp, chief executive of the British Polio Fellowship, which supports victims, said: "What we would hope is that this does not deter anyone from being vaccinated. The vaccine has been extremely successful in combating polio."

Liam Fox, the shadow Health Secretary, said: "The immunisation programme is one of the most important parts of public health policy... It is therefore essential that all information is fully disclosed by the Government to help retain the confidence of an understandably sceptical public."

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