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Parliament was misled over the safety of the MMR triple vaccination that was used for four years in Britain, the FOIA Centre can reveal.
Following a series of disclosures under the free-dom of information act (FOIA), we are able to expose how parliament and the public were given a false assurance about the triple vaccine that was used by the UK when it launched its national MMR programme.
MPs were assured that MMR was launched in the UK after other countries had used the triple vaccine successfully.
However, we can reveal that none of the countries that were named in parliament used the same form of MMR that made up most of the triple vaccines injected into children in Britain for four years from 1988.
In addition, one country that had used the same MMR withdrew it after linking it to a series of adverse reactions.
In March 1997, a Conservative junior health min-ister, John Horam, answered several parliamentary questions to the health secretary about the safety assessment of MMR before its introduction in 1988.
He said: “The joint committee on vaccination and immunisation decided at its meeting of November 7, 1986 to recommend to ministers that a combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine be introduced into the United Kingdom childhood immunisation programme as a replacement for single antigen measles vaccine. This recommendation was made following consideration of the experience of several other countries which had successfully used MMR vaccine for a number of years.”
“Before the introduction of MMR vaccine, the JCVI gave careful consideration to available information from Finland, Sweden and the USA on the safety, efficacy and efficiency of the vaccine and from trials conducted by the public health laboratory service communicable disease surveillance centre in about 10,000 immunised UK children.”
In the UK’s national programme launched in 1988, 85% of the MMR injections contained a particular strain of mumps, called Urabe, for four years.
This type of MMR is known to cause encephalitis adverse reactions, including meningitis, among some children. These conditions – which variously involve swelling of the brain or of the lining of the brain or spinal chord – can lead to brain damage, deafness or even death.
We reported two months ago that Whitehall documents, released under FOIA, show how government health officials and experts gradually learnt from 1987 of the dangers of Urabe MMR.
Contrary to the impression given in Horam’s parliamentary statement, neither Finland, nor Sweden, nor America used Urabe MMR. They used MMR containing the Jeryl Lynn strain of mumps, which also replaced the Urabe version in the UK in 1992. It had only made up 15% of the UK injections between 1988 and 1992.
Following the FOIA disclosures, Dr David Salis-bury, the department’s director of immunisation, has admitted to the FOIA Centre that none of three countries named by Horam actually used Urabe MMR, the type that was predominantly used in Britain following the roll out of the nationwide programme.
He denied, however, that the Parliamentary ans-wer was misleading.
However, Horam also failed to mention one count-ry that actually had used Urabe MMR at the time: Canada. Officials there swiftly stopped using Urabe MMR after spotting a link between it and encephalitis reactions.
As we reported two months ago, the FOIA documents show that Canadian officials warned British counterparts of the problems that they had experienced with Urabe MMR: eight months before it started to be injected into British children.
By 1990, Canada had also withdrawn its licence for Urabe MMR. Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore followed suit. Japan reported similar problems the same year. But it took the UK department of health until 1992 to stop using Urabe MMR.
Horam’s parliamentary statement in 1997 made no reference to the alert from Canada.
There is no evidence that Horam was aware of the true position when he made his statement, and so there is no suggestion that he intended to mislead.
Indeed, minutes of Whitehall meetings about the introduction of MMR, released under FOIA, suggest that there was confusion among government officials and experts about what type of triple vaccine was being used where and their relevance to the UK programme.
The minutes of the JCVI meeting in November 1986, to which Horam referred in his parliamentary statement, records that one committee member, during a discussion about MMR, “enquired about the risk of adverse reactions.”
Another member “stated that favourable results on safety had been reported both from Finland and USA.”
This reference in the minutes appears to be reflected 11 years later in Horam’s parliamentary statement. However, it has no bearing on the safety of Urabe MMR. (In addition, later minutes refer to less reassuring data from America and Sweden on Jeryl Lynn MMR.)
But only later did officials learn that Britain was to use Urabe MMR.
The revelation of the false parliamentary assurance comes after our disclosure earlier this month that the high court judge who blocked legal aid for children bringing a group claim for damage allegedly caused by MMR has a brother who sits on the board of a drugs company embroiled in the litigation.
The ruling by Sir Nigel Davis – whose brother, Sir Crispin Davis, is a non-executive director of GlaxoSmithKline – to dismiss the attempt to restore legal aid left many unable to continue with their legal struggle, and the group dwindled, with only 32 children thought to be remaining.
Meanwhile, a further hearing to decide on procedural issues in the group action is due to begin today at the high court. Pharmaceutical companies are understood to be seeking the dismissal of all but two of the remaining claims.
Documents on MMR were obtained by the FOIA Centre acting on behalf of one of the parents of a child in the group litigation against various pharmaceutical companies.