- Twelve years ago, the government gave assurances that
the first version of MMR was safe. It wasn't - it was linked to meningitis
and withdrawn. So why should parents believe that the current triple
is any better? Lorraine Fraser reports
- As the door to the emergency ward slammed shut Juliet
Parsons opened her mouth and screamed. All that was left to her was a
of ashen-faced doctors crowding around the lifeless body of her baby
- Nearly two hours earlier, Matthew, her first child, had
gone into a fit and now he was no longer breathing.
- For an hour she waited in a side ward at York District
Hospital paralysed by a fear that she would never see her 14-month-old
son alive again.
- "I thought I was going to lose him," she said.
When they took him to intensive care the consultant told me they had
him but he had meningitis and would be brain damaged or deaf at
- "It should never have happened. It is on all
medical records that this was a complication of MMR, a complication that
they knew about even before they brought the vaccine here.
- "As long as the majority are OK, it seems, it
matter about the children who are damaged. It happened to Matthew then
and it's happening to other children now.
- "The government was wrong before. They said the
vaccine was safe. But it almost killed my son. How can we trust them this
- Mrs Parsons has a letter, dated 1994, from Norman Begg,
a consultant epidemiologist at the Centre for Disease Surveillance in
north London, saying how sorry he was to hear that Matthew, now 12,
the brain illness after his measles, mumps and rubella vaccination in
- The letter explained that Matthew's illness, which was
caused by the mumps part of the MMR vaccine, affected one in 11,000
vaccinated with MMR in Britain.
- He sought to reassure her with the information that the
two vaccines most likely to cause this problem had been withdrawn from
use in Britain in September 1992.
- He added: "Fortunately, a majority of the children
recovered very quickly without any long-term effects."
- Dr Begg omitted to disclose, however, that in 1987, just
as public health specialists in the Department of Health were drawing up
plans to launch MMR, doctors in Canada had begun to suspect that there
could be a problem with a version of the triple jab which contained a
strain of mumps virus, known as the urabe strain.
- By February 1988 the Canadians had seen eight suspicious
cases of meningitis in children who had recently been vaccinated.
- The use of MMR vaccines containing the urabe strain was
stopped throughout Canada pending the results of tests to see whether the
virus was to blame.
- Nevertheless, on October 3 of that year an MMR campaign
was launched in Britain using two vaccines, Pluserix and Immravax, which
each contained, alongside live measles and rubella virus, urabe mumps
- Eighteen months later, in May 1990 the Canadian ban on
MMRs containing urabe was made permanent. Two and a half years went by
and millions more British children were vaccinated with the risky virus
before Britain followed suit.
- Jackie Fletcher, of the parents group Jabs, said
"What parents find very hard to understand is why the Department of
Health did not wait for the outcome of the investigations in Canada before
- "It is inconceivable that they didn't know what
was going on. Matthew was lucky, but other children were left deaf. One
died of a heart infection that her parents now believe to have been
- "These are the same officials who are now dismissing
out of hand the studies Andrew Wakefield has been doing on autism and bowel
disease in children who have had MMR. Its not hard to see why so many have
little faith in what is now being said."
- It is this question of trust that has left Tony Blair
appearing unusually flat-footed. Before Christmas he hinted that he had
given his son, Leo, the inoculation, leading one newspaper to declare that
he had indeed done so.
- The careful, legalistic form of words he used was less
reassuring when studied closely.
- In his statement he said that he would not advise parents
to accept a treatment "knowing it to be dangerous". But nobody
had accused him of knowing that MMR was dangerous, only of perhaps sharing
their parental anxieties.
- Ten days ago it emerged that Leo had only recently been
given the jab. It now appeared to many that Mr Blair's hint had been
- Last Wednesday, when the Conservatives switched policy
to demanding that parents be given a choice of single jabs, the Prime
- The Tories were "totally irresponsible" and
guilty of "scaremongering", he declared.
- But the failure of his government and his health offcials
to reassure parents was made clear in a poll for The Telegraph yesterday
which showed that three quarters of the public wanted the choice of
- Four in 10 parents of small children said that Mr Blair's
equivocation about his son's treatment had dented their confidence in
- Mrs Parsons, who now lives near Lincoln with Matthew,
his nine-year-old brother David, and her husband Chris, an Air Force
officer, feels let down by the public health officials who assured her
that she was simply being a responsible parent to have Matthew vaccinated
with MMR 12 years ago and that she had nothing to fear.
- She was "furious" for a long while. Her son
made a good recovery, although he continued to have fits for three years
- The arguments over MMR, its possible links with autism
and the anger of parents denied separate jabs on the NHS have brought her
experience back vividly.
- She cannot understand how the government could possibly
have allowed the urabe virus, which nearly killed her son, to be used in
Britain when there were concerns about it elsewhere.
- It makes her wonder how the public health officials can
be so sure that they have all the answers on MMR this time.
- "The attitude is, 'Oh Matthew is fine now', as if
what happened to him doesn't matter. That is not the point. Matthew could
have died. I could have lost him at 14 months.
- "If they knew about the risks, how could they have
let it come into the country without proper testing and proper safeguards?
It was the sacrificing of the minority for the majority good."
- Matthew fell ill three weeks to the day after his MMR
vaccination with a high fever and the telltale swollen cheeks of
- His father had taken him for the jab at a clinic held
by a visiting paediatrician at RAF Church Fenton in Yorkshire where they
- Mrs Parsons said: "The doctor told Chris that we
might notice reactions such as a fever in Matthew in three weeks' time,
but that was perfectly normal because he had the virus in his system. Give
him Calpol and he'll be fine.
- "Interestingly, two weeks after the vaccine - the
incubation period for measles - he was a bit spotty and hot but we gave
him Calpol and he was fine.
- "Three weeks to the day after the vaccine he was
very hot and swollen around his neck. Being an intelligent person I
'Oh well, that will be the mumps part and he's obviously suffering a little
bit.' But I didn't really worry too much. We even went out for a barbecue
and had a babysitter.
- "When we came back in the evening he was projectile
vomiting. The next morning he was very hot and listless. I picked Matthew
up and he was just staring. I had seen fits before and I recognised that
that was probably what was going to happen.
- "I stripped him off and thought it would last a
couple of minutes. That was the point at which I started to worry because
it went on and on and on and on.
- "We called the RAF medics who came quite quickly.
They were absolutely terrified which made me almost hysterical. They were
spongeing him down, this little naked sprat, and the fits weren't
- "By the time the local doctor arrived, Matthew had
been convulsing for almost an hour. He asked me to leave the room while
he called the hospital which made me very anxious. Matthew then stopped
breathing. I thought I was going to lose him.
- "In the ambulance he stopped breathing again. They
couldn't work the oxygen. The doctor had to use a bag to resuscitate
- "He wasn't breathing when we got to the hospital.
The doctor ran into the casualty and they took him into a room with rows
of people waiting for him and the door just shut on me. I just screamed
my head off. I thought I would never see him again."
- The arrival of the three-in-one injection in Britain
was announced by Edwina Curry, then Health Secretary, 14 years ago.
- Leaflets encouraging parents to take it answered the
question, 'Is it safe?' with an unequivocal 'yes'. They made no mention
of the meningitis risk or the action taken in Canada.
- Some health officials had deep misgivings,
- One, who asked not to be named, said: "The people
at the top knew the risks. Some advisers thought it was madness to take
a chance with the urabe strain when other vaccines could have been used
and were worried that the literature said MMR was totally safe. Some felt
afterwards that millions of children had been part of a big
- Then, as now, the MMR jab was safe for most children.
Unfortunately, for some these concerns turned out to be well
- The parents of more than 300 children have now indicated
that they want to sue for ill health allegedly caused by Pluserix or
More than 50 of the cases relate to meningitis.
- The government was forced to act when in 1992 public
health specialists in Nottingham reported that vaccine-related meningitis
could be affecting up to one in 3,800 children, a figure later revised
- Two weeks before the results of that Nottingham study
were made public in the British Medical Journal, Kenneth Calman, the then
Chief Medical Officer, announced that the vaccines containing urabe mumps
(which had made up 80 per cent of the MMR vaccines distributed) were to
be replaced with MMRII.
- This was a version made by Merck Sharp & Dohme which
contained a less potent mumps virus known as the Jeryl Lynn strain.
- He was careful to make the point that the rate of
after natural mumps (one in 400) was far higher than that found with MMR,
and that the balance was still in favour of giving "any MMR
Nevertheless, in the circumstances MMRII was "preferred".
- On Thursday Dr Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer,
tried to allay parents' concerns about MMR and the risk of autism.
- He ruled out allowing single measles vaccine on the NHS
as an alternative for parents concerned about MMR, saying that single jabs
would be playing "Russian roulette" with children's lives.
- Dr Wakefield is working on the hypothesis that the
virus from the vaccine can damage the gut of susceptible children, leading
to autism, and that the presence of mumps virus at the same time - as in
MMR - makes this more likely.
- In a paper published last week he reported that tests
had confirmed findings of measles virus in the bowel of children with a
combination of bowel problems and autism.
- Dr Donaldson dismissed the research as flawed and said
that scientists had "already picked up a number of
- Last night Dr Wakefield, who has branded the government's
stance "unsustainable and reprehensible" said: "I have been
told by a senior official in the government that the decision to use the
MMR vaccines containing the urabe strain was made despite repeated warnings
- And the clear implication was that these vaccines were
chosen because they were cheaper.
- "It is time for a full investigation of exactly
what has gone on in private in offical circles in relation to
- Mrs Parsons, 39, decided that she could no longer trust
what the government said on MMR 12 years ago. She would not allow her
son, David, to have the vaccine.
- "I feel so sorry for parents at the moment."
she said. "I just cannot understand why the doctors at the Department
of Health are being so strident in their approach; why they will not do
the research to see if there is a problem and look at the children who
have been damaged?"