Major vaccine shortage condemned as a scandal

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BRITAIN IS facing a national shortage of vaccines against the main childhood illnesses because of production problems among the manufacturers, doctors' leaders said yesterday.

The shortages have affected the BCG vaccine against tuberculosis, vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough given to infants, diphtheria and tetanus jabs given to children starting school and the meningitis C vaccine intended for university students.

The British Medical Association yesterday condemned the shortage as "scandalous" and demanded that the Government take immediate action to remedy it. The Department of Health blamed the shortages on the manufacturers and said supplies of the meningitis C vaccine were being increased.

Dr John Chisholm, chairman of the BMA GPs' committee, representing 36,000 family doctors, said: "Were it not so serious this would be farcical. At the same time as the Health Department is sending people to the doctor for immunisation, they are failing to ensure that GPs have the vaccines needed to do the job."

Dr Leonard Peter, a GP in Harrow, north-west London, said he had just one dose of the meningitis vaccine left and had run out of diphtheria and tetanus vaccinations on Thursday - with no idea of when new batches would be delivered.

He said: "This is an absolute scandal and a complete disgrace - I have not seen anything like this in 21 years as a GP. As a matter of good practice we call up parents to remind them to come and get the diphtheria vaccine for children starting school. But when we looked in the fridge we realised we hardly had any vaccines left. The manufacturers cannot give me any idea of when new supplies might arrive."

Doctors across the country have reported shortages of meningitis C vaccine as students about to start university have flocked to surgeries demanding it. Ministers announced in June that for the first time this winter all 400,000 first year students would be offered the vaccine but manufacturers have been unable to meet the increased demand.

Dr Jonathan Freedman, a GP in St Albans, said: "We have got six vials [of meningitis C vaccine] left and at least 40 students who are not immunised."

He added "It is a concern because we want our students to go to university having been properly immunised. Now they are faced with having to wait until they get there to get it. It takes a few weeks to become effective [after vaccination] and it would have been much better to vaccinate all of them before they go to university."

Dr David Salisbury, the Department of Health's principal medical officer, said: "We have been shipping out very large quantities of the [meningitis] vaccine since late August and those quantities have been going up by the day over the last few days, and will continue to do so over this week and next week.

"By the end of this week we should have sufficient vaccine distributed for about 90 per cent of the first-year population, and we have almost the same amount of vaccine again set aside for use in the universities when they get there."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said that the manufacturers of the diphtheria and tetanus vaccine, Pasteur Merieux and Medeva, had been called in by Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, in July and told that the situation was unacceptable. "They agreed to implement plans to rectify that shortage and those plans are being implemented now," she said. Pasteur Merieux said a major piece of machinery had broken down, interrupting manufacture of pre-filled syringes of the vaccine, which GPs prefer.

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