MMR Vaccine

Secretary of State for Scotland (Meetings) – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 7 February 2002.

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Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 2:30, 7 February 2002

To ask the First Minister whether any member of the expert group on the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine has any links with any pharmaceutical company that produces the vaccine. (S1F-01642)

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Three members of the MMR expert group have shares in pharmaceutical companies. One member provides expert reports for solicitors representing a company that manufactures the MMR vaccine, and one member is acting as an expert witness for parents groups that are taking legal action against MMR vaccine manufacturers. All 18 members of the group agreed to follow the seven Nolan principles for standards in public life and, on appointment, declared any relevant private interests. That information has been in the public domain since November last year.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I thank the First Minister for his answer and I hope that the Parliament will take some comfort from the assurances that it conveys.

I remind the First Minister and the Parliament that the expert group was set up as a result of Mary Scanlon's MMR report to the Health and Community Care Committee. The report found that, on the basis of the evidence that was available to the committee, the MMR vaccine was safe and the vaccination programme should continue. The report also found that further work was required on the efficacy and viability of the single vaccine and on the impact of the single vaccine on herd immunity.

Does the First Minister agree that politicians should act responsibly at this time and await the conclusions of the expert group's work before making speculative comments on such a sensitive issue? Such comments could have an impact on herd immunity and ultimately put children's lives at risk.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

Obviously, I agree with Margaret Smith. However, I also want to take this opportunity to emphasise the importance of a sane and rational public discussion of this issue. As far as I recall, I contracted measles at the age of about six or seven, in about 1967. In 1967, there were 14 deaths from measles-related illnesses in Scotland. The disease did not affect me in the long term, but it affected a number of others in my age group. Such statistics should remind us all of the situation as it used to be. As long as those involved in the expert group have properly declared their interests and as long as the expert group has properly represented the interests of those who require a voice on this issue—as I believe we all accepted at the time—I hope that, when we receive the expert group's report, we will treat it seriously. In the meantime, I strongly urge parents across Scotland to use the vaccine to ensure that not only their children but the children of others, some of whom cannot use the vaccine, have the opportunity to be free from measles, mumps and rubella.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Does the First Minister agree that the decline in MMR vaccine uptake poses a real and immediate threat to children throughout Scotland? I know that he is as worried about child safety as I am, but the statements about MMR vaccine safety, no matter how often repeated, are increasingly failing to reassure parents. What further action will the Scottish Executive take to ensure that, in one way or another, all children in Scotland are vaccinated against those deadly diseases?

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

I will give a couple of important assurances. It is important that we try to conduct a rational discussion on this matter in the Parliament and that we ensure that the facts are discussed and put across clearly in public life in Scotland. Of course, some individuals who are concerned about the vaccine are expressing alternative points of view. However, a number of others are involved, not least the Faculty of Public Health Medicine of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of the United Kingdom, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the public health medicine environmental group, the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association and the Public Health Laboratory Service, which yesterday issued a joint press release that endorsed the continued use of the vaccine. Those professionals, who have a direct interest, are trying to get across the facts. I do not think that politicians should try to second-guess medical advice on this issue as it would be dangerous for us to do so. I hope that the chamber will remain as united as the Health and Community Care Committee was last year when it produced a considered report on this issue and asked an expert group to look at some of the other issues that are involved.

Photo of Brian Fitzpatrick Brian Fitzpatrick Labour

I am grateful to the First Minister for his assurances. Although I recognise parents' real anxieties and the need to win the debate by using persuasive arguments, will he also bear in mind the tremendous importance that the parents of young children—including families in my constituency and me—attach to the integrity of the present, highly successful vaccination programmes? Will he reflect on the concerns that exist about the less effective, more patchy inoculation coverage rates that result from the suggested alternatives, together with the known risks of death and damage to children from measles? Will he work with the health ministers, parents and health professionals to ensure that the increase in child deaths that followed similar scares about whooping cough immunisation in the 1970s is never repeated? Although there might well be many issues that are suitable for political kick-about in the Parliament, let us not play games with children's lives.

Photo of Rt Hon Jack McConnell Rt Hon Jack McConnell Labour

It is important not to play games with children's lives. I am sure that Brian Fitzpatrick would accept that it is also important that we understand and empathise with those who have developed genuine concerns because of the nature of comments in the media. I am keen that we deal with the issue rationally, so that we allay concerns in a rational way, without lecturing to those who are involved.

I will make one point to parents who might have some doubt. Up to five per cent of children cannot take the MMR vaccine. That might be because they have leukaemia or other conditions that do not allow them to take it. The higher the number of children who do not have the vaccine, the more dangerous life becomes for the children who cannot take it. As well as the individual interest, there is a wider community interest. I sincerely hope that we will all be involved in providing some reassurance, helping to calm the situation and assuring people across Scotland that they can send their children to play with other children safe in the knowledge that their children will not contract diseases as a result.