Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Poor response can lead to serious consequences

Newspapers are often accused of creating panic around health scares by the way they report deaths which become associated with vaccines or other treatment.

So, when news broke yesterday of the death of a schoolgirl in Coventry shortly after she had received the new cervical cancer jab, the Mercury thought long and hard about how to report it.
We were very conscious of the dangers of frightening people away from having the jab as every year more than 1,000 women die of cervical cancer and doctors say the new vaccination will cut that significantly.

We were aware that no link had been established between the girl’s death and the jab apart from the fact that she died soon after receiving it.

However, some jabs were suspended in Coventry and we turned to our local health authorities to offer some reassurance. Unfortunately, the response we got was disasterous. It offered no reassurance, but left major questions unanswered.

We were told: “Although we have had to cancel a small number of immunisation sessions at a few schools due to local circumstances, there are no plans to interrupt or suspend the national HPV immunisation programme.” We were given almost exactly the same wording twice from different senior people within our local health authorities - it was clearly an 'agreed line' and we even heard that it had come out of the Department of Health who were suggesting that all health authorities should say no more.

But what on earth were we supposed to make of that? What did they mean when they said that a small number of sessions had been cancelled due to ‘local circumstances’? They wouldn’t say.

Elsewhere in the country, health authorities announced that they had been instructed by the Department of Health to cancel sessions and check the batch numbers of their vaccines. They said that vaccinations would restart tomorrow.

But the damage is done. A poorly thought-through response to a single death which adds confusion and even the smallest reason to doubt what is being said will unsettle parents.

Of course, we have seen it all before with the MMR jab. Enough doubt was raised to persuade many parents to refuse to allow their children to receive the vaccination despite health authorities repeated statements that the dangers from measles and mumps were far greater than any danger in the jab.

So how did we handle it? Fortunately we have a very experienced health reporter in Cathy Buss and her article was well-balanced and all I can say is that it wouldn't put me off allowing my two daughters to have the jab.