By Anthony Bevins

Blinkered attitudes to vaccine victims

Our Government has got itself in a dreadful knot over the question of compensation for vaccine-damaged children. Ministers have become so tangled in their own twisted inconsistencies and illogicalities that they are now endangering the UK programme of immunisation, which is one of the foundations of our children's good health.

During the last war my mother and brother caught diphtheria, a deadly disease which can literally choke its victims to death. They survived, but thousands did not.

Today, diphtheria is just one of the diseases against which there is a routine vaccination. While only a handful of cases are confirmed each year in this country, diphtheria remains widespread in places such as the former Soviet Union, India and South America.

A vaccination programme is vital in the fight against disease. But Tony Blair and his ministerial colleagues risk undermining public support for the vaccination scheme by their penny-pinching pusillanimity.

As the Daily Express reveals today, Gordon Brown signed a 1986 Commons motion, sponsored by Jack Ashley, condemning "grossly inadequate" Government payments to vaccine-damaged children and calling for proper compensation for "the few tragic and unwitting casualties of this state-sponsored scheme". Now, 14 years later Mr Brown, as Chancellor, holds the purse strings - yet he is blocking the money required to fund justice for the vaccine victims.

If you are a pensioner, one of 11 million pensioner voters who can shake the Government's cocky confidence in a local election debacle, Mr Brown can be forced to commit billions of pounds to give you a whacking cash increase in your pension. As he will from next April.

But vaccine-damaged children have no political voice or clout. Instead, they have ministers' pity and a pittance paid to some under the disgusting Vaccine Damage Payments Scheme; a conscience-salving sop by any other name.

There is to be no compensation, properly judged and assessed by the courts of the land. There will be no payouts for the damage done because the Government has vetoed the necessary change in the law. Instead, there will be a bureaucratic adjustment to the grubby payment scheme.

The false logic behind that decision is death-defying in its audacity. Put at its simplest, and drawing on their own weasel words, ministers accept that vaccine safety is of the utmost importance. The benefits and risks of vaccination are always carefully considered and kept under constant review.

Serious adverse reactions to vaccines are very rare. But a report of an adverse reaction does not necessarily mean that it has been caused by the vaccine. There is no evidence to support the suggestion of a causal link between any of the childhood vaccines recommended in the UK and brain damage or death.

So what are these risks that are carefully considered and kept under constant review? If you were to look at the leaflet on the new meningitis C vaccine, 26 million copies of which have been distributed to surgeries, pharmacies, schools, post offices and libraries, side-effects range from "some redness and swelling" through to "mild fever".

When Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker asked this month whether the vaccine carried a risk of brain damage or death, he was told by Health Minister Tessa Jowell: "Brain damage and death are not recognised risks." It is the word "recognised" that leaps from the page of Hansard.

Dr Bill Inman was principal medical officer at the Department of Health, responsible for monitoring adverse reactions to medicines in the Seventies. In a book published last year, Don't Tell The Patient, he says that following pressure from Lord Ashley and others, he reviewed the medical notes of more than 200 vaccine-damaged children and concluded that in three-quarters of the cases damage "had probably been caused by or aggravated by" the whooping cough vaccine which was being used all those years ago.

There is no "evidence" of damage because they refused to recognise any such evidence. Above the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, the figure of Justice is blindfolded. In Whitehall, Justice is blinkered.

If pensioners jump up and down, they are quite rightly noticed. Vaccine-damaged children are out of sight, out of mind; their plight is brushed aside like so much fluff and nonsense.

The Prime Minister bases his political creed on the need for strong families in a strong community. He says that community is built on a bond of duty and responsibility between state and citizen.

If parents have a responsibility to the community to have their children vaccinated, the state has a duty to those damaged in that process. If the state breaks that bond, then the state directly damages public confidence in its own vital vaccination programme.

As Lord Ashley said on the first day of this Daily Express campaign: "They are victims of a war fought against disease on behalf of us all. They must be compensated for their sacrifice."
Express Newspapers, 2000