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Miss Kirkbride: I am not satisfied that there is no link. I believe that there are reasons to be concerned. I do not say that there is a link, but I cannot say in all honesty that there is not.

I am fortunate to have recently had a child of my own. I have to judge my reaction to public policy on the basis of the choices that I would make for my family. If I were to take my young son to have an MMR vaccination--fortunately, I do not have to do so for another year--I would do so with fear in my heart because of the queries that have been raised in my mind about the vaccine's safety, about which I should like further reassurance.

Although there is no proof to support the concern of parents, there is a logic to it. They believe that if three live vaccines are given to children who, at the age of just over one, have a very immature immune system--certainly in this world where cotton wool and disinfectant are everywhere--there is a risk that the triple attack on the immune system may cause proteins to leak out of the intestine and cause brain damage. Some experts believe that children are being damaged in that way and think that it is a different form of autism.

Hon. Members who disagree with those parents have to explain why autism is so much on the increase in this country. Perhaps it is being diagnosed more often, but it is still a subject on which all hon. Members must get many letters every week from parents of autistic children about them being statemented. Sadly, it is a common condition among the children of people who write to us, and we need an explanation.

The evidence that the Department of Health has produced to reassure parents like me has done it no favours. The recent Finnish study of 1.8 million children has been used to prove that there is no problem, but the difficulty is that it did not find a single case of autism in all those children. That is statistically inconceivable,

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given the rise in the number of autistic cases. Not having found a case of autism worries me more than if it had told me that it had found a certain number of cases, because those would have been a statistical probability and have nothing to do with the MMR vaccination.

The study asked GPs to report their findings on the children after four to six weeks, but that was not long enough for the symptoms of autism to become apparent. The study was self-selecting and did not address the problem of autism. In addition, since the MMR vaccine was introduced in Finland, there has been a fourfold increase in cases of autism. The Department should give a more detailed response to those serious issues. The figures and information that it has provided so far have not been good enough.

The Secretary of State referred to Japan, on which he would not take my intervention, and the terrible case of 79 children who died from measles. The Department of Health has decided that that provides proof that single vaccines do not work. It has used the case to tell Conservative Members--and me in particular--that we are wicked because we advocate single vaccines and therefore a death sentence for our children. That is not true. Those children died because they were not vaccinated at all, which is rapidly becoming the case in this country. The huge crisis of public confidence in the MMR vaccine in Japan in the 1990s was caused--for want of a better description--by a rogue vaccine that would not have been licensed here either. It was rightly withdrawn, presumably on the advice of a body with equivalent responsibilities to the World Health Organisation.

As a result, the Japanese public lost confidence in vaccinations against childhood diseases and their children were not given them. Some of those children sadly died of measles. However, they did not die because they received single vaccinations but because they received no vaccinations. It is wrong for the Department to say that we cannot choose to have single vaccines because of what happened in Japan. The false and partial information that it provides makes people who strongly believe in choice, as I do, unhappy about the truthfulness of the Department in giving parents the full picture of the public health implications of the vaccine. That is why we should offer parents choice.

Clinics that administer single inoculations tend to leave a six-week gap between them. I accept that children are vulnerable to the diseases in that period, but that is nothing compared with the period of vulnerability if a child has no inoculations.

Again, I upbraid the Department of Health. A back door was open to single vaccinations for those people who felt strongly about the issue. A clinic in Edinburgh and a clinic in south London, called Direct Health 2000, probably met with the Department's disapproval because they have the temerity to be private, but if the Department really believes that it is better for children to have the MMR vaccination, there is no reason why people should not use their own money to have the inoculations done singly at their own expense. However, both clinics have been told that they can proceed with a single vaccination programme only for named children who have already received a vaccination.

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It is wrong and stupid of the Department of Health to proceed on that basis. The clinics offered an option for the parents who felt strongly, but the option has been removed and the clinics have been given a stern reprimand about continuing to offer the choice. That has left an awful lot of parents disappointed that their one option of choice has been removed. The Department is foolish to be so bull-headed on the issue that it is not big enough to leave a back door open for those parents who feel strongly.

I should also upbraid the hon. Member for Wirral, West. He seemed to suggest that the answer to increasing immunisation rates is to offer no-fault compensation for children who develop autism. That would make everyone have the vaccination. No parent will say, "That's all very well. I do not mind if my child develops autism, because I'll be compensated." That is not how parents think about their children. While they have a fear that has not been allayed by proper research, no-fault compensation will not be the answer.

I suspect that I know why the Department does not want to reintroduce single vaccinations. Litigation is proceeding about the potential link with autism and compensation might have to be made available to those who have already been affected. Its lawyers are probably telling it not to give ground while the litigation is proceeding.

I also upbraid the hon. Member for Wirral, West for his old Labour stance that, because ABC1s do not want the vaccination, there is no cause to worry. They form a big part of the population and they are entitled to their opinion even if he does not think that he represents them. That is another reason why the alternatives should not be rejected out of hand.

The Secretary of State gave the impression that a speech like mine would create unnecessary fears and that it would be irresponsible to ask for single vaccines to be available to the general population. I reject that argument. It is irresponsible of the Department to continue, in its bull-headed fashion, to refuse to allow choice for parents. We do not live in the nanny state any more, however much Ministers would like to rewrite history. Parents are no longer prepared to accept on trust the advice of Ministers and some doctors. In a poll last week, health professionals also voiced their private concerns about MMR.

The public are not prepared to respond with complete trust; they will respond by making their own informed decisions. If we want our children to be protected and want to preclude the possibility of a measles outbreak in the United Kingdom, in which some children might die, we have to offer parents choice. I hope that this debate and perhaps my Bill--if it gets an airing on 9 February--will do something to persuade Ministers that they are being deliberately obdurate and that the time has now come for a change in Government policy.

9.4 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): I decided to seek to speak in the debate when I realised that it was likely to focus on immunisation and vaccination, because I was so concerned that the current debate on MMR vaccination could affect public confidence in our immunisation and vaccination programmes generally. Given the fairly measured speeches by Opposition Members, I am surprised that the motion does not reflect that, but implies

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that there is a general problem with the Government's public health policy on immunisation and communicable diseases. In terms of reducing confidence in the MMR vaccination it would have been helpful if the motion had not referred to the vaccination programme in general. That concerns me.

I was also surprised by the comments made by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) about CJD and the public believing that full information had not been made available. One of the first people to visit a surgery I held just after being elected to Parliament was a woman on her way to visit her son who was dying in a local hospital of CJD. She would not believe now that full information was made available during the years covered by the Phillips inquiry. I hope that the House will soon have a debate on the Phillips report, because it is important that the full facts emerge and that the culture of secrecy that prevailed is wiped away.

The reason that I am so concerned that people should not have a problem with vaccination generally and that I am surprised at the terms of the Opposition's motion is rooted in one of the worst things that has happened to me since becoming a Member of Parliament. In summer 1999, while on holiday in Devon, I received a pager message from a member of staff in my constituency office mentioning the name of a small boy who had just died. The reason that message was so upsetting was not just that it told of the death of one particular boy, but that it confirmed that a village in my constituency had suffered a wholly inexplicable series of outbreaks of meningitis.

Several deaths and other cases of the disease occurred in three separate outbreaks despite every measure being taken that would normally be taken to deal with an epidemic. No one in the world could explain the outbreaks. I spent much of that summer on the phone with my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) who was in Yorkshire, and other senior Government advisers who were on holiday in other places, trying to persuade them to grant the request made by my local health authority to get the vaccine that was just being trialled and had not yet been licensed into that village, because there was no other way in which to solve the problem.

I was deeply grateful when that action was taken, and extremely relieved to hear of the latest results, which show what an amazing success that vaccination programme has been in tackling meningitis C. Far from talking about the failures of Government public health policy coupled with reference to immunisation programmes, we should recognise that the meningitis C programme and the flu programme have been among our major successes. We should applaud that, not suggest that all of the programmes are in danger. I am concerned about any lack of confidence in one programme spilling over into others.

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