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Tell it to rebecca

MagazineAugust 2000 (Vol. 11 Issue 5)Tell it to rebecca

For the past several weeks, our phone has been ringing off the hook from the press about the dangers of the meningitis C vaccine, now that the papers have got wind of the fact that there have been 4750 reports of side effects from the vaccine since the countrywide campaign

For the past several weeks, our phone has been ringing off the hook from the press about the dangers of the meningitis C vaccine, now that the papers have got wind of the fact that there have been 4750 reports of side effects from the vaccine since the countrywide campaign. This is rather a sore point with me as we contacted these same newspapers five months ago, attempting to alert them to the fact that this vaccine may have been released too hastily and that a countrywide campaign for a disease with such a small incidence among certain age groups as this (only 40 deaths among all children and virtually none among the 5-15 year olds) was reckless and unthinking.

Sadly, now that there's a body count, the press finally wants to listen to the story. Not that it's that easy to get hold of. The Department of Health's press office is bristling with defensiveness. It's true that the Medicines Control Agency has had nearly 5000 reports of side effects. But, as a DoH press officer rather sniffily pointed out to me, 80 per cent of those were mild reactions, like headaches, sore arms, stomach aches and high temperatures.

That leaves, of course, 20 per cent, or 1000, reactions that were not so mild like losing consciousness, allergic reactions, persistent blackouts, seizures (the jab appeared to cause fits especially in epileptic children), meningitis itself and behavioural changes such as hyperactivity. I more or less had to wrench out of her that eight cot deaths were being investigated as having a possible link.

Although headaches are being classified as "minor", in at least two instances that we know of, children have complained of persistent and lingering pain. Like 12 year old Rebecca Hall, of Midsomer Norton, who has suffered 10 episodes of blackouts and headaches since she had her jab. Two hours after she was vaccinated, she collapsed and had to be taken to hospital. Since then, she's collapsed at school on two occasions and been sent home 10 times.

The DoH's line is that, according to the World Health Organization, this percentage reaction which represents 1 in 10,000 is low compared withmost vaccines.

That's, of course, if the 5000 figure represents the true incidence. With the Yellow Card reporting scheme, which GPs use to record side effects, only about 10 per cent of side effects are ever reported. The DoH claims reporting of reactions to the vaccine has been "very high" representing perhaps 40 per cent of all reactions. Which means that the true number of reactions to the meningitis jab is closer to 12,000 which translates into reactions of about 1 in 4000 a high reaction by anyone's measure.

Oh, but the vaccine has cut meningitis C by 75 per cent, claims the PHLS, among 15 to 17 year olds. The truth appears to be a bit more complex. In 1998 (midyear week 26 to midyear week 26), there were 773 cases of meningitis C and 1850 lab reports of all bacterial meningitis. In 1999, there were 981 cases of meningitis C and 2404 lab reports. In 1999-2000 only up to the 13th week (there were 13 more weeks of numbers in the earlier years), there were 700 cases of meningitis C with 2016 lab reports.

What appears to be the case is that 1999 represents a high of all forms of meningitis, but the figures for all types of meningitis are returning to 1998 levels typical of the cyclical nature of the disease. Or, it may be that, once we calculate the figures from the missing weeks 13 to 26, we'll end up with virtually the same numbers as the year before. And as other graphs show, the incidence of the disease was flattening out in the 15-17 age group before the vaccine was universally given. In other words, nature is responsible and the DoH is taking the credit.

So, what we have now is at least 1000-3000 children with serious reactions to a jab being given for a disease with very little chance of harming them in their age group. You work out the maths. Then talk to Rebecca's parents about their feelings about community responsibility for "herd immunity".

!ALynne McTaggart


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