Alert over polio immunisation follows concerns surrounding safety of combined measles, mumps and rubella jabs

Public confidence in the safety of immunising millions of British children each year has reached an all-time low and could lead to epidemics of crippling childhood diseases, doctors warned yesterday.

Public confidence in the safety of immunising millions of British children each year has reached an all-time low and could lead to epidemics of crippling childhood diseases, doctors warned yesterday.

The recall of the polio vaccine because of fears of mad cow disease is the latest in a spate of scares about the vaccination programme, which includes concerns about the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Public health officials and medical experts warned that increasing numbers of parents refusing to immunise their children could lead to a return of killer diseases, such as polio, tuberculosis, diphtheria and rubella, that have all been eradicated from the Western world.

Parents of vaccine-damaged children said increasing numbers of people were questioning the vaccination programme because of the secrecy of drug companies and the unwillingness of the Government to recognise concerns or investigate fears over the safety of different jabs.

The Government's Medical Control Agency ordered the recall of a polio vaccine that has been used to inoculate millions of children after it was discovered that it had been produced using foetal calf serum from Britain.

Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, said the risk of contracting vCJD, the human variant of BSE, was "incalculably small" but the vaccine was being removed as a precautionary measure. The Government said the recall was based on the discovery of a breach of European guidelines issued in 1999 as precautionary measure to protect public health in the light of developing information about the theoretical transmission of BSE.

However, guidance on the use of bovine materials for oral medicinal products was issued in the first BSE report produced by Sir Richard Southwood in 1989, which stated: "The Licensing Authority has been alerted to potential concerns about BSE in medicinal products and will ensure that scrutiny of source materials and manufacturing processes now take account of BSE agent."

The latest disclosure about the polio vaccine will intensify the embarrassment over BSE in light of next week's official report, which is expected to expose years of Whitehall concealment over the scandal.

After the Southwood report, guidance was produced by the Committee on Safety of Medicines in 1989, which said UK-sourced bovine materials should not be used in the manufacture of injectable medicinal products. As a result, vaccines using material from cows or calves in the UK were phased out during the early Nineties.

The Department of Health said it repeatedly "sought and received" assurances from Medeva, the company which made the polio vaccine, that UK bovine material was not being used in the production.

But suspicions were raised in June that the guidelines were being breached and further investigations revealed that UK-sourced foetal calf serum was being used as a growth agent in the vaccine.

The vaccine has been used in the UK since the early 1980s and, until September, accounted for a third of inoculations, around 11 million, given to children, travellers and other patients in this country.

Professor Donaldson said he recognised the recall would worry parents. "It is important to remember that polio is a potentially lethal disease which we have virtually eliminated from this country," he said. "Only by keeping children vaccinated can we ensure that it does not return to this country."

He added: "Public confidence in medicines safety is paramount. We have to take a precautionary approach, knowing these guidelines have been breached. The vaccine will be recalled immediately and replaced with a one which meets safety requirements."

Isabella Thomas, of JABS, an organisation that was established seven years ago byparents of vaccine-damaged children, said the latest scare would put even more parents off immunising their children.

"Parents are starting to question the vaccination programme, there are so many unanswered questions. It is not good enough for the Government to say it tried to check with the company. More needs to be done, we need more openness and more safeguards.

"There is too much secrecy. You have one lot of doctors saying the vaccines are safe and another lot saying they are not and it is the children who get caught in the middle."

Most JABS members are parents who believe their children suffered adverse reactions to the combined MMR vaccine, but other cases include the whooping cough, meningitis C and polio jabs. Mrs Thomas, who has two sons she believes have been damaged by the MMR, said children given the MMR jab had become deaf, developed diabetes, autism, epilepsy, chronic bowel disease and other health problems.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said the Government was worried about the impact the latest scare would have on the public health and vaccination programme. "We have achieved over 95 per cent coverage for most diseases, but the MMR vaccine coverage is still too low," he said.

The childhood vaccination programme includes diphtheria, polio, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, mumps and rubella. Concerns about the MMR vaccine have resulted in vaccination levels among young children falling from 95 per cent to 88 per cent in the past three years.

There have also been reports that 11 children have died and 16,000 have suffered adverse reactions after being given the meningitis jab since it was introduced last November.

However, doctors warned that it was easy to forget that only 40 years ago measles epidemics regularly struck about half a million children and as late as 1955 there were nearly 4,000 cases of polio in England and Wales. Between 1980 and 1995 there were only 28 cases of polio in Britain.

"Surely no one wants to go back to the situation we had in the 1950s when thousands of people were devastated by polio," said John Grounds, director of the charity Action Research. "We are within a whisker of eradicating polio worldwide. We can understand parents are concerned, but the risks are small and we would urge people to continue to have their children immunised."

Dr Simon Fradd, joint deputy chairman of the BMA's General Practitioners Committee, said: "The risk from any outbreak of polio, if immunisation levels fell off, would be very much greater. I would urge parents to continue having their children immunised."