Joan Lestor – 1978 Speech on Whooping Cough Vaccine

Below is the text of the speech made by Joan Lestor, the then Labour MP for Eton and Slough, in the House of Commons on 26 May 1978.

My debate follows well from the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley). Last July the Minister and I met on a similar occasion. Following that debate he wrote a letter to me about whooping cough vaccine. I had asked him during the debate why smallpox vaccination was no longer advocated as a routine measure for young children in this country. The Minister promised that he would let me have the answer in a letter.

Two weeks later he wrote to me and said that smallpox vaccination was no longer advocated as a routine measure because the incidence of smallpox abroad had declined and that therefore the risk of a child contracting it in this country was now less. He said that it was felt that the risk of damage from the vaccination was more dangerous than the likelihood of small- ​ pox. That is true, and has been for a long time.

I wish to find some common ground with my hon. Friend before I begin the main thrust of my argument. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that in all these illnesses, whatever the efficacy of the protection might have been, good health, sanitation and improved environmental circumstances have contributed as much, if not more, to the erosion of these infections than has any form of vaccination.

It is common for the Department of Health and Social Security to say that since the vaccination was introduced among young children in the 1950s, whooping cough has declined, but whooping cough was declining in this country long before vaccination was introduced. An examination of the figures at the turn of the century proves that. Instances of whooping cough have risen and fallen over the years, but they have never been as great as they were when the disease was at its peak at the turn of the century, although there have been epidemics.

I take issue with my hon. Friend and shall continue to do so until I at least am satisfied, because whatever one’s views might be about vaccines in general, the anxiety about the whooping cough vaccine and the way in which the situation has been handled by the DHSS is militating against the use of many other protective vaccines for young children.

My hon. Friend is not a doctor. His colleagues are not doctors, neither am I. Ministers rely for their conclusions on advice and judgments given to them by advisers under the Committee on Safety of Medicine.

When the medical profession disagrees as profoundly as it does on the question of whooping cough vaccine any layman or woman has a right to go to other sections of the medical profession and ask them their opinion. Is what such people say being evaluated properly? Those who first questioned thalidomide were told that they were foolish, that there was no evidence, and that it should be ignored. A time will come when, just as we see contraceptive pill after contraceptive pill withdrawn because of new dangers associated with it, other drugs will be withdrawn. A few people stand out and say “I am not satisfied. I am ​ not happy”, and one must take note of them.

For most of my information, but not all, I shall quote Professor Gordon Stewart, of Glasgow—who is well known to the Department—and Dr. John Wilson, of Great Ormond Street. It is well known that cases of whooping cough have been declining for a long time.

I wish my hon. Friend to establish an important matter. We were told that there would be an epidemic of whooping cough and that unless there was a massive campaign of vaccination of children against it all hell would break loose. We were told that there would be a devastating epidemic. We have had epidemics before to a greater or lesser extent. The most important consideration, however, is the number of children who, having been vaccinated, were among the increasing number of cases in certain parts of the country subsequently to suffer from whooping cough. The evidence to that effect is mounting to considerable proportions. Again, I refer my hon. Friend to the work that has been done by Professor Gordon Stewart in this respect.

I believe that the evidence will ultimately show that children who are vaccinated against whooping cough suffer from it far less severely. In the early days of vaccination, doctors, believing that vaccination gave total protection, were not notifying cases of whooping cough. I hope that the Department is checking the research which has shown that recent cases of whooping cough have occurred among children who were vaccinated against the complaint. Large numbers of children—Professor Gordon Stewart puts the figure at 70 per cent.—who were found to be carrying whooping cough had been vaccinated against it. In addition to the dangers, therefore, there is doubt about the efficacy of the vaccine.

Much was made by the Department and my hon. Friend the Minister about the possibility of an epidemic and about the need for a campaign. In spite of the advice that the campaign should be delayed, he took the view that it should go ahead. He said that children who had been damaged by the vaccination would be compensated, and that the risk from the vaccination was so minimal and the risk from whooping cough so great that it was better to have children vaccinated.

It is interesting to note, however, that the incidence of measles, rubella, and influenza, as well as other children’s illnesses against which protection can be given, have all increased. Has the DHSS done it work to check whether the increased incidence of these complaints has occurred among children who were vaccinated? If that is so, why pick out just whooping cough, particularly when we know some of the dangers associated with the vaccine?

Figures have been published from time to time showing the risk of death from whooping cough. The group most at risk from whooping cough always has been babies and young children. The few deaths that have occurred in the current outbreak of whooping cough have been of young babies. The reason is that young babies cannot be protected against whooping cough. Babies can be vaccinated against whooping cough only between the ages of nine and 12 months, and therefore babies outside that age range are at risk from whooping cough, whether there is a programme of vaccination or not.

Even before vaccination was introduced, young babies died more frequently from whooping cough than did older children. It is an illness that proves fatal in very young children. We now know, therefore, that babies cannot be protected against whooping cough. Even so, the Department is considering reducing the age for vaccination in order to concentrate the efficacy of the vaccine into a shorter period of weeks or months. If that is so, the DHSS must proceed with care. It may cover itself by saying that children at risk should not be vaccinated, but how on earth does one establish whether a young baby is at risk?

I do not believe that the Department can ever establish the common factors among the children who were damaged as a result of the vaccine to enable it to determine which group of children is at risk. That is because there were no common factors. Many children who suffered damage from the vaccine had not been thought to be at risk. Just what is the area of risk? What were the common factors among the children who were at risk? What were the common factors among those who suffered brain damage as a result of the vaccine? If we do not know what these common factors were, how can we say which children are at risk?

There is talk about bringing down the age in order to concertina this thing in to protect young children, but if children who have been vaccinated are getting whooping cough—I think that the evidence that has been presented is overwhelming—the likelihood of offering greater protection to babies seems very suspect.

Secondly, and, of course, more importantly, if—I do not know this—the DHSS decides that it would not be sensible to bring down the age of vaccination for young children, they will continue to be at risk, and they have the biggest risk of death from whooping cough. It has always been the argument about death from whooping cough that has been the main thrust of the argument for vaccinating children. But young babies have always been at risk in relation to the older children in the family.

Professor Gordon Stewart says that the vaccine is fairly ineffective and that this fact has been hidden because doctors believed that children were not getting whooping cough because they had been vaccinated. It is interesting that the baby in the family has often had whooping cough and no one has known where the baby has got it from, because the rest of the family have been protected. But if Professor Gordon Stewart’s argument is correct, that it merely lessened the symptoms but they still got the disease, of course babies were still getting whooping cough. There is little that one can do about that, with or without vaccine.

I put another point to my hon. Friend. Has the extent of the damage to the vaccine-damaged children been quantified in any way? People talk about brain damage, but we know of cases of paralysis, of various types of mental defects, of continuous screaming, and of other minor effects resulting from the vaccine which have also been reported to the Committee on Safety of Medicines.

Among the things that I should like to ask my hon. Friend is the question whether the chairman of the Committee on Safety of Medicines has given his blessing to the campaign now going ahead for the vaccination of children. Has he given his support to the advocacy to parents that they should have their ​ children vaccinated? If so, I believe that he and the Department are being very negligent in not taking into account and answering the constant arguments that are being put forward by Professor Gordon Stewart and others. To my mind, they have not been answered. Until they are answered, I believe that a large number of parents in Britain will hesitate not only about this vaccine but about many others. Until these points are answered, the whole case about preventive medicines and preventive inoculations, and about various other things, is very much at risk.

In conclusion, I say to my hon. Friend that I do not believe that anything that has happened since the first warning signs about whooping cough vaccine were given has wiped the slate clean, as it were. There are doubts about the efficacy of the vaccine. There are certainly doubts about the way in which one will protect those at the greatest risk—babies—without subjecting them to even greater risks. Thirdly, there are very strong doubts indeed that the risks from the vaccine are now not greater than the risks from the effects of whooping cough.

It was on those grounds that the smallpox vaccine was certainly discouraged in this country, and I believe that it is on those grounds that the vaccination of children against whooping cough should also be discouraged.