Last November parents breathed a collective sigh of relief when the current immunisation programme against Meningitis C was launched in schools. But just eight months and several million sore arms later, panic about the disease has given way to concern about the vaccination itself. Reports of 5,000 reactions, from headaches and swollen arms to meningitis-like symptoms, which have put some children in hospital, have made many parents think twice.
You don't have to be too cynical to have seen it coming. This is just the latest in a succession of vaccination scares, from research suggesting links between the whooping cough vaccine and epilepsy in the Seventies, to the possibility of a connection between MMR and autism and Crohn's disease in the Nineties.
This evening a debate in London organised by the consumer health watchdog, What Doctors Don't Tell You, brings together experts both for and against to discuss the latest findings on Meningitis C, MMR and other vaccines. It's likely to be quite an evening, given that opinions on both sides are so polarised and argued with such passion.
But what are parents - who these days may be expected to submit their children to as many as seven vaccines in one go - to make of such contradictory views? Mostly they just feel confused, as Rachel Krish, whose three sons, aged nine, seven and 11 months have recently been immunised for Meningitis C, admits: "It's difficult to get any midway opinion. You either have the medical profession who toe the party line or the alternative homoeopathic lobby who are completely anti the whole business. So you're largely thrown back on your own instinct. I think most people, like me, make decisions based on personal stories. The trouble with Meningitis C is that because it's so new you haven't got other people's experience to go on. You feel like a guinea pig."
Parents like Rachel want information but don't know where to get it and who to trust. Lynne McTaggart, who is organising tonight's vaccination debate, says: "Parents aren't given enough information. The number of people who come to us and say, 'If I had known the MMR vaccine could cause autism I never would have given it.' People aren't aware that MMR is banned in Japan, for example.
"We keep telling parents to think with their heads and not with their hearts and look at each individual vaccine. You have to ask some hard questions - how effective is the vaccine? How safe is it? What is the likelihood of my child getting this disease? - and not just say, this will protect my baby. Because it may not - they may be the kid with the bullet in the chamber. All vaccinations have the potential to do great harm."
Her words are likely to send shivers up the spine of even the most rational parent. Each camp puts its arguments so powerfully that parents can find their own views swinging wildly from one to the other. Take the arguments for and against the Meningitis C vaccine. The Department of Health insists it is safe, that 5,000 reactions out of several million jabs is perfectly normal and expects to see no deaths from the disease this winter. Dr David Elliman, who runs an immunisation advice clinic at St George's Hospital in Tooting, is also decidedly pro: "Meningitis C affects about 1,500 people a year, and causes 150 deaths, two-thirds of whom are children. An equal number are left with permanent damage. The majority of the 5,000 events after the vaccine are relatively minor, and with those numbers there are bound to be some coincidences." But Lynne McTaggart argues: "Your baby is five times more likely to drown in his bathtub and 86 times more likely to die of cot death than of Meningitis C. If your child has virtually no chance of getting Meningitis C why give him an untried vaccine with side-effects? Some of those kids are going to be damaged for ever by the vaccine."
The growing anti-vaccination lobby can seem alarmist, but at least it's there to air the other side of the story. By contrast the Department of Health leaflets really don't tell you very much. There's a feeling that the medical profession is nervous of sowing even the smallest seeds of doubt, and parents are understandably suspicious of the impartiality of GPs who get a bonus if they fulfil their immunisation targets. It's very much like the good old childbirth debate, with many parents feeling they are being denied genuinely informed choice. Parents don't know what to believe.
As a result most decisions about vaccination are pretty ad hoc, depending on anything from the latest scare stories to whether you've got time to get to the doctor for the pre-school booster. As one mother says: "Both my sons are going to have the Meningitis C jab simply because I've been unable to establish why they shouldn't and the idea of meningitis makes my blood run cold. I've talked to friends who've made the opposite decision but they haven't really said anything that seemed overwhelmingly convincing. It's a bit weedy but in the end I'm the sort of person who takes out insurance policies rather than wings it."
Many parents are equally concerned about the wisdom of giving multiple vaccinations simultaneously to very young babies. Rachel Krish's baby son, Hal, was ill for two weeks after having the Meningitis C vaccine at the same time as his final triple shot. She says: "I thought it was partly due to overload - his system was having to take quite a lot on board with the combination of vaccines."
Common sense, and indeed maternal instinct, would seem to dictate that the less mature the baby, the more vulnerable they are to side-effects. Dr Peter Mansfield, a former GP who now campaigns against mass immunisation agrees: "It is not reasonable to be exposing the infant immune system to this kind of challenge under six months. Yet nearly two-thirds of the immunisation schedule takes place under six months, which is crazy. The fact that it's state-sponsored doesn't make it less crazy - it just means it's more dangerous because there is no real free thought encouraged on the subject." It's not surprising that Dr Elliman of St George's Hospital takes the opposite view: "There is evidence that the younger the baby, the fewer the side-effects, and vaccination at two, three and four months protects the baby earlier. And with multiple jabs you don't get a multiplying up of side-effects."
Dr Elliman is one of an increasing number of doctors who would like to see parents given access to more information. One enlightened GP in Herefordshire even puts parents who want more information than he feels able to give in touch with a local mother who has done masses of research on vaccination. Dr Elliman says: "Parents are questioning vaccination more and more, and there is undoubtedly a case for giving those parents who want it more information - there is no justification for not giving all the evidence that is available. It's also important to put both sides of the story. It would be daft to say that every vaccine works 100 per cent of the time, or that no vaccine has side-effects. It's a question of how common they are and balancing that up with the disease.
"The difficulty is putting the information into a form that is understandable. And the great difficulty is that you easily sow the seeds of doubt, and once you've sown them it can take years to rebuild confidence."
But the bottom line is that most parents are unlikely to opt out of vaccination programmes without good reason. It's one thing to have doubts, but quite another to act on them. That's why critics accuse vaccination programmes in schools of unfairness; it's much harder for parents to say no and risk their children feeling left out. There have even been reports of consent forms being ignored by busy nurses.
It's not surprising that parents who are brave enough to opt out of vaccination programmes often feel vulnerable. Chris Jacob, a homoeopath with five children between the ages of one and eight, decided against vaccination when he started training. He remembers: "With our first child my wife and I felt slightly scared of the consequences of not vaccinating, but we felt in principle it was right because homoeopathy was a better way of protecting our children. Since I've understood more about homoeopathy and vaccination we've felt happier about that decision. It appears that a lot of the medical arguments are based on fear that if you don't vaccinate you run the risk of damaging your child's health, and your child could even die. But I believe homoeopathy is a better way of dealing with disease when it arises, in combination with a good diet and a healthy lifestyle."
The Great Vaccination Debate is at Friends' Meeting House, Euston Road, London NW1 tonight, from 7-10pm. Call 0800 146054 for tickets, which cost £21.75.
'Immunisation' by Harriet Griffey (Element Books, £7.99) - published last month
'The Vaccination Bible', edited by Lynne McTaggart (Wallace Press)