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Crispin Blunt MP: How the public health minister failed to address my concerns about the vaccine against cervical cancer

Picture 2 Crispin Blunt is MP for Reigate and a shadow home affairs minister. Here he expresses dissatisfaction with the reaction of the public health minister to the points he made in a recent debate about the Cervarix vaccine against cervical cancer.

Since last autumn the Government has been rolling out a nationwide vaccination programme for teenage girls against two strains of the Human Papilloma Virus thought to cause about 70% of cervical cancers. 

The vaccine they have chosen is called Cervarix and it is administered in three injections, currently to girls between the ages of 12 and 13, but soon all girls under the age of 18 will be included in the programme.

Cervical cancer has been given a new prominence in the public health agenda following the recent death of reality TV star Jade Goody, and it is only right that parents want to take the necessary steps to protect their daughters from the horrors of this illness.

However there are important questions about the Cervarix vaccine of which parents have the right to be made aware.

First, there have been a number of severe suspected adverse reactions, including seizures and partial paralysis; a number of girls who were formerly fit and healthy became ill with similar severe symptoms shortly after being inoculated. Secondly, the information provided to parents and doctors by the NHS does not include a sufficient discussion of its possible recognised side effects, as published by its manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline. Nor does it discuss alternative methods of protection against HPV and cervical cancer that some families may feel are more suitable for girls in their early teens. 

The debate surrounding Cervarix highlights wider issues about vaccination in the UK such as the lack of a robust compensation scheme or a mandatory warning system to which suspected adverse reactions can be reported. The suitability of school as an environment in which to vaccinate children is also called into question.

I raised these matters with Health Minister Dawn Primarolo MP in a recent adjournment debate following the experience of a girl in my constituency who began to suffer from severe Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and debilitating muscle and joint pain shortly after beginning the course of injections. 

The Minister spent much of her time mentioning things I didn’t actually say. The majority of her speech was devoted to explaining why she thought the vaccine was safe and appropriate for use. This is the one point I didn’t actually raise, since I maintained throughout that I was not questioning the safety of Cervarix for the public in general. 

She dismissed any connection between the vaccine and the condition of girls such as my constituent, claiming that this was based merely on opinion and conjecture, far removed from the "cold hard facts of scienc" on which the medical practitioners advising the Department of Health based their conclusions.

The Minister has clearly never taken a course in epistemology. If she had, she would realise that science is as much based on opinion and supposition as any academic field and as rife with division as any other.  One such division is over the efficacy of Cervarix and the adequacy of its clinical trials as a growing number of doctors and scientists join its list of critics, one of the latest being Germany’s Robert Koch Institute.

There is also recognition amongst professionals involved in vaccination that any vaccine carries an inherent risk of adverse reaction which, more than likely, will manifest in a few people as the programme is rolled out.  This doesn’t make it unsafe for society at large but it does mean that all possible reactions to the vaccine will not have been exhausted in its clinical trials. It is sheer arrogance to maintain that everything is known about this vaccine and that medical opinion is completely united on it.

Furthermore, if doctors suppose the vaccine to be free from serious side effects based on what they are told by the NHS and the Department of Health, then they are unlikely to link symptoms suffered by those such as my constituent to being caused by the vaccine even though her symptoms correspond to the side effects given by its manufacturer. As soon as they are aware of it, such as my constituent’s consultant or doctors at her family GP's surgery, they make the connection. 

The answers to my general questions about vaccination were no better. The Minister refuted my claim that the UK’s yellow card warning system (which receives reports of suspected reactions to vaccines) was "one of the weakest in Europe" on the basis that through it the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority publishes online reports of suspected side effects every week. This fails to address the key points of why it is a weak system: that reporting to it is not mandatory for professionals and that it is largely unknown to the public

My other points about a proper compensation scheme for the unfortunate few who do suffer adverse reactions and the best environment for children to be vaccinated in seemed to pass the Minister by as she launched into an effusive endorsement of the benefits of Cervarix and the number of lives it will save.  This not only missed the points I was making by a mile but also denied us the chance to start a debate about these, very important, aspects of national vaccination programmes.

Instead she harped on about "evidence" and "science" one minute and gushingly sentimental about the unproven wonders of Cervarix the next. Quite clearly whoever wrote it miscalculated what I was going to say and she had no answers to many of the important points raised. Either that, or she has managed to indoctrinate herself with her own propaganda and is now ignoring these important issues affecting the health of young girls across the UK: a fitting testimony to the attitudes of this Government.


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