Women's Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:31 pm on 10th June 1988.

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Photo of Miss Emma Nicholson Miss Emma Nicholson , Torridge and West Devon 1:31 pm, 10th June 1988

I was intending to touch on that matter in a moment, but I am pleased to join my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) in stressing the need for immunisation. In overseas countries, it is easier to spot the fact that the measles virus has mutated into a killer disease. It is no longer just the few lumps and bumps that it might have been in our childhoods.

Smallpox immunisation was the first great example of successful vertical programme intervention. Worldwide eradication of smallpox—the great achievement of the World Health Organisation—has been completed and is a triumph.

The United Nations task force on child survival recently announced that it planned globally to eradicate polio, another of the great crippling and killing childhood diseases, by the year 2000. That is a great tribute to the International Rotary Polio Plus campaign, which was launched some years ago. It has taken the World Health Organisation a little time to agree that the eradication of polio can be conducted separately from, but while continuing, immunisation against the other five major childhood diseases.

I pay tribute to the Save the Children Fund Stop Polio campaign. Ten million pounds was raised and spent in the first four years of its existence alongside the Rotary Polio Plus campaign. That campaign has now been subsumed into the overall immunisation programme.

Polio is a major problem for developing countries. For example, in India, every year 200,000 children catch polio. Many more do so in Africa. In Malawi, when we ran the Stop Polio campaign for the Save the Children Fund, five or six years ago we achieved 90 per cent. coverage. By contrast, at that time in Lambeth, polio immunisation had a 37 per cent. take-up. The crucial importance of communicating with mothers and children simply cannot be overestimated. It is almost the most important factor after development of the vaccine.

It is marvellous that, at last, in this country we are starting by immunisation, the long haul to eliminate CSR—congenital syndrome rubella. We should think hard about the initiatives taken by the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind. We clearly appreciate the values of immunisation in developing countries, so perhaps we should apply them nearer home. As recently as 1982, the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind convened a conference to discuss rubella and its tragic and miserable consequences. The risk of pre-natal damage from rubella is highest in the first four months of pregnancy. If a woman catches rubella in the first month, her child may suffer multiple handicaps—deafness, blindness, and physical and mental handicaps.

About a fortnight ago I talked to a man in my constituency about the Abortion (Amendment) Bill. His mother caught rubella in about the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy. He has a weak heart, poor eyes, poor ears, and bad health. He said how much he would have wished not to be alive had his mother caught that illness earlier. That is an important point to remember.

I strongly welcome the 1 October introduction of the MMR vaccine—measles mumps and rubella. Measles is a wretched, mutative virus. I recognise the need to get rid of it as fast as we can. Of course, we are late in that respect, as so often we are late. MMR has been used in the United States of America for perhaps 20 years. In 1970 we started our anti-rubella programme for schoolgirls of 10 to 14 years, whom we saw as the vunerable age group. But the MMR vaccine will be given to 15-month-old babies. I understand that we seek a 90 per cent. uptake, which will allow us to eliminate rubella in particular, and, I hope, measles and mumps. The booster pre-school package of diphtheria, tetanus and polio will include MMR.

It used to be said that one could not eliminate such contagious diseases and that smallpox was unique because it was carried only by humans. The great advantage of the polio immunisation programme was to counter that suggestion. Polio is carried by primates. It is a water-borne disease, and medical experts said for a long time that it was ineradicable because no sooner would it be eliminated in a group of human beings than they might catch it again from primates through the water supply. When immunisation is built up in children and babies, the human race seems able to deflect the disease. It is enormously encouraging, therefore, to see that genuine eradication of contagious diseases other than smallpox is a possibility.

I should like to pay a strong tribute, in regard to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, to the Rubella Council, which was formed as a result of the 1982 Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind initiative. The council is chaired by Jean Wilson, who is the wife of the chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind. Like the council, I welcome the extra £40,000 a year grant, which brings its funding up to £83,000 a year.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) has had to leave, because he would be interested to know that the funding is for promotional purposes, not for eradication. If the £35,000 that the council has been running on for the past five or six years is anything to go by. it will do a remarkable job with the additional £40,000. The funding is not to enable the council to immunise 15-month-old babies but to enable it to tell mothers and everyone else that 15-month-old babies need the new immunisation.

This is a good example of successful partnership between the Government and the voluntary sector. I welcome that in health care. I have participated in such partnership and I know that it works. With the Save the Children Fund, I participated in the anti-rickets campaign. We mistakenly thought that we had eliminated rickets from the United Kingdom many years ago, but without sufficient vitamin D people will still suffer from it. People with darker skins, particularly the Asian community, have a predisposition towards rickets if they live in Britain because there is considerably less sun here to enable them to synthesise vitamin D. People with darker skins need significantly more sun to achieve the synthesising effect.

We had to reach out to Asian mothers, through the Asian community, to teach them to bring their children forward for additional supplies of vitamin D. The mothers had rejected officialdom already and I suggest that the heavy hand of Government would not have had the same effect. The very best of the non-governmental organisations have a lighter touch, a more personal approach, a sharper eye for human needs and more flexible rules which enable them more swiftly to meet those needs. It is a matter not of the state not being able to provide everything, but that it should not provide everything, because non-governmental organisations can provide some services better than the state can. The quality and effectiveness of provision should be the determining factors.