We must be persuaded, not told, of the case for vaccines

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A tale of two vaccination programmes: earlier this month we were celebrating the triumphant success of the campaign to inoculate the population against meningitis C. This week, we are left wondering about the triple vaccination for mumps, measles and rubella (MMR). Vaccinations are fraught with philosophical difficulty: although it is usually in the interest of the individual to be protected against a disease, it may be possible to avoid the jab and yet benefit from the fact that, since nearly everyone else has had them, the society as a whole enjoys "herd immunity". Not only that, but decisions on vaccines are generally made by parents on their children's behalf.

A tale of two vaccination programmes: earlier this month we were celebrating the triumphant success of the campaign to inoculate the population against meningitis C. This week, we are left wondering about the triple vaccination for mumps, measles and rubella (MMR). Vaccinations are fraught with philosophical difficulty: although it is usually in the interest of the individual to be protected against a disease, it may be possible to avoid the jab and yet benefit from the fact that, since nearly everyone else has had them, the society as a whole enjoys "herd immunity". Not only that, but decisions on vaccines are generally made by parents on their children's behalf.

Successful immunisation programmes in modern, well-informed democracies must rest on persuasion. In the case of meningitis C, the campaign was assisted by a great deal of publicity given to a frightening disease. In the case of MMR, however, most parents may not be as frightened as they should be, and the authorities have made a poor fist of persuading them of the benefits of vaccination.

The study of two million Finns published yesterday was useful in that it failed to substantiate the scare of two years ago, which claimed to link the vaccine to autism and Crohn's disease. But that scare has drawn attention to the way in which three vaccines have been combined in one - a combination that has been defended by the Government with all the openness and persuasiveness of Joseph Stalin. Separate vaccines are simply "not available" in this country.

Measles, despite its everyday appearance in the Enid Blyton world of the 1950s, is a disease that can kill - and does kill about 15 people a year in Japan. Mumps can cause sterility. Rubellais an unusual case, in that boys are expected to have the jab and yet can have no direct benefit from it: it can cause birth defects if pregnant mothers catch it.

It may well be that combining three desirable vaccines in a single jab is the best way to administer them. Spacing them out would leave children exposed, and would probably result in lower take-up. But those are not reasons enough for refusing to allow people the choice of having the vaccines separately. If ministers and health professionals are so sure that MMR is best as a triple vaccine, they ought to be able to persuade the rest of us. In which case letting a few misguided individuals have one, two or three vaccines separately would hardly matter. The NHS must give people a choice.

Comments