Parents must ask to receive safer vaccine

feb 2003


DOCTORS have been told to come clean about Infanrix, the safer whooping
cough jab available on the NHS - but only if directly challenged about it
by parents.

The compromise means that parents who ask no questions will have their
children injected with the cheaper DTwP jab laced with ethyl mercury - a
substance ordered out of US medicine on health grounds.

The deal was met with political outrage yesterday as Scotland‚?Ts
opposition parties accused the Scottish Executive of skirting around its
duty to give parents the full facts about vaccination options before going

Dr Andrew Fraser, Scotland‚?Ts deputy chief medical officer, has written an
"urgent message" to Scottish medical specialists alerting them to fears
around thimerosal, a controversial vaccine preservative 50 per cent
composed of mercury.

The substance is contained in DTwP, the £10-a-shot jab from France which
protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, or whooping cough,
routinely given to all babies aged two, three and four months.

Its rival is Infanrix, a UK vaccine available on the NHS to the few parents
who know to ask for it by name. It is almost twice the price because it
comes without the so-called "junk cells" suspected of giving children fever
after injection.

It is also made without thimerosal - and is the type of vaccine routinely
used in the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and South Korea.

"Parents are entitled to know if thimerosal is contained in the vaccine
available to them," Dr Fraser‚?Ts letter said. "They should be aware of the
reason for this - ethyl mercury is an essential component of the most
effective vaccine available to protect children."

The Executive explained that this "entitlement" only extends to parents who
ask if they have an alternative. Those who do not will be given the mercury

"The DTwP is recommended, because it is more effective. So that is the one
which is given. If parents were to ask a question, for whatever reason,
they would be told everything - about the choice, the side-effects,
whatever they wanted to know."

The Scotsman revealed yesterday that babies injected with the cheaper DTwP
vaccine are ten times as likely to suffer side effects ranging from fever
to periods of unusual crying lasting more than an hour.

In a Holyrood debate yesterday, Frank McAveety, Scotland‚?Ts deputy health
minister, admitted that Infanrix does have "lower levels of side effects" -
but said it was less effective.

"Our recommendation is that, on the balance of risk, DTwP offers the best
protection against whooping cough. Each individual or family will have to
make those choices in consultation with their medical practitioners."

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP‚?Ts health spokeswoman, said this is meaningless
if parents are not being told that Infanrix exists.

"Choice can only be exercised if parents have the information to make that
choice," she said. "There will be no consultation if doctors do not
pro-actively lay out the options."

Mary Scanlon, the Tories‚?T health spokeswoman, asked Mr McAveety to
publish the performance data for both vaccines - saying that only this
could let parents decide which is best for their children.

The thimerosal debate has swept the US, where parents are now suing drug
companies. They are fast building evidence that the ethyl mercury induced
autism in their children.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, a Tory peer, raised the issue in the House
of Lords on Wednesday night, calling for ministers "to follow a long list
of developed countries and remove thimerosal from vaccines forthwith".

Thimerosal has not survived any public debate in any country. The Scottish
Executive has said it will soon publish the figures it uses to argue that
the mercury vaccine is better.