The government’s inaction on swine flu threatens lives

The coalition’s refusal to offer the under-fives vaccination could develop into a crisis.

It's difficult for me to see how the government's refusal to offer babies vaccination against swine flu won't snowball into a major political crisis for the coalition. You can take away child benefit, you can triple the cost of university education, you can stand by and do nothing while the bankers that got us into the current economic mess trouser tens of millions in bonuses. But when your penny-pinching appears to be putting children's lives at risk voters are going to start getting seriously annoyed.

Three-year-old Lana Ameen died on Boxing Day at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool, apparently from swine flu, three weeks after her parents were told she wasn't eligible for the vaccine. The story made the front page of last Friday's Daily Mail (not good news for the so far comparatively Teflon coalition). Her anguished father – a doctor – said: "My medical colleagues and I have no doubt that if my darling daughter had been vaccinated, she would still be alive today. That's why the government must wake up and change their immunisation policy urgently."

As of Friday, the government said there had been 112 flu deaths since October – six of them children under five. How many of those losses could have been prevented if the children had been offered jabs? My wife tried to get our 20-month-old daughter, Isobel, inoculated against swine flu just before Christmas. Last year's advice from the then chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, was still ringing in my ears.

Back in November 2009 – under Gordon Brown's Labour government – the jab was made available to all under-fives. "We consider them to be seriously at risk," Donaldson said. "Parents are standing by intensive-care beds in life-and-death situations. We are out to save lives."

He warned that this is a disease which is entirely preventable but which kills healthy children and adults. There is no evidence the vaccine carries any risks, he said, so get your children vaccinated. We were surprised when our local GP in south-west London refused to protect Isobel against this terrible illness. She said the disease was not yet at the pandemic stage so they didn't want to offer it to children. I said I'd rather not take the risk of waiting to find out whether or not it is going to become a pandemic.

She said that Isobel is not in one of the at-risk groups as designated by the government, because she has not been hospitalised for breathing difficulties or been diagnosed with asthma. I said that she has a history of chronic chestiness and has been prescribed a ventolin inhaler; and in any case, swine flu is an illness that seems to kill otherwise healthy people. Eventually the doctor admitted that I could go to a private clinic to get Isobel immunised if I wished. I asked if, given that this is a potentially fatal disease that is entirely preventable, it would be overprotective of me to do that? She said no, absolutely not – it would probably be quite sensible.

It is difficult not to conclude that the only thing stopping that GP from giving Isobel the jab was money. A private clinic – the Parkside Hospital in Wimbledon – was offering flu vaccines on a walk-in basis for £10, but had run out by the time we contacted them. So instead we wait, and hope that our child doesn't go the way of Lana Ameen – dead for the price of an injection that would have cost the NHS £6.

The NHS press officer I spoke to insisted the flu jab is not being refused to under-fives for financial reasons, or due to any shortage, or because the risks of taking the jab outweigh the reward.

So, why then? The spokesman pointed me in the direction of the somewhat cryptic advice put out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on 30 December. It says that children do not need the flu vaccine because they make up "only a very small proportion of those with severe disease", adding that "the greatest gain will be achieved in increasing vaccine uptake in the clinical risk groups".

According to the government, 18 out of the 661 patients in NHS critical-care beds with confirmed cases of swine flu on 13 January were under-fives. For some reason – which after conversations with my doctor, the local health authority, the Department of Health, the British Medical Association and others still eludes me – offering protection against flu to those under-fives is not a government priority.

When my daughter was born at Kingston Hospital's amazing maternity unit in February 2009 she had severe breathing difficulties and had to spend five days on life support.

At the time I thanked God and Gordon Brown for the money Labour at pumped into the NHS, because I don't think she would have received better care anywhere else in the world, or at any price. I can't help feeling that – judging from personal experience – her health is in less safe hands under the current government.

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette.

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Getty.
Show Hide image

The Femicide Census honours the victims of gender violence

The survey shows that the majority of women who are killed by men suffer their fate at the hands of a current or former partner.

 

The phrase “isolated incident” often turns up in media reports when a man kills a woman. The police use it at press conferences. It’s a code: it means the story ends here, no one else is in danger, the rest of the world can sleep safe because this particular killer does not have his sights on anyone else.

Thanks to the Femicide Census – a collaboration between Women’s Aid and nia, two specialist services dealing with violence against women – we now know how many of those “isolated incidents” there are, in England and Wales at least. Between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2015, it was nearly a thousand: 936 women (aged 14 and over) were killed by men in seven years.

As the census reveals, the killing of women follows a very different pattern to the killing of men, although there is one thing both groups of victims have in common: their killers are almost always men.

But female victims are more likely to know their killer than male victims. In fact, they usually know him very well: 598 (64%) of the women were killed by a current or former partner, 75 (8%) by their son, 45 (4.8%) by another male family member. Killing is often what the census describes as “the final act of control”: not an “isolated incident”, but the culmination of a long campaign of coercion and violence.

This means that trends in femicide – the killing of a woman by a man – don’t match the overall homicide trend, as a 2011 UN study found when it noted that the overall rate of homicide had fallen while killings of women remained stable. But official records have long failed to recognise this difference, and there were no statistics specifically on men’s fatal violence against women until 2012, when Karen Ingala Smith (CEO of nia) started cataloguing reports of women killed by men on her personal blog, a project she called Counting Dead Women.

That was the start of the Femicide Census, now a high-powered data project on a platform developed by Deloitte. The list has been expanded so that victim-killer relationship, method of killing, age, occupation, ethnicity, health status and nationality can all be explored.

Or rather, these factors can be explored when they’re known. What gets reported is selective, and that selection tells a great a deal about what is considered valuable in a woman, and what kind of woman is valued. As the census notes: “almost without exception, it was easier to find out whether or not the victim had been a mother than it was to find out where she worked”.

Killings of black, Asian, minority ethnicity and refugee women receive vastly less media coverage than white women – especially young, attractive white women whose deaths fulfil the stranger-danger narrative. (Not that this is a competition with any winners. When the press reports on its favoured victims, the tone is often objectifying and fetishistic.)

Women’s chances of being killed are highest among the 36-45 age group, then decline until 66+ when they jump up again. These are often framed by the perpetrators as “mercy killings”, although the sincerity of that mercy can be judged by one of the male killers quoted in the census: “‘I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag.”

Another important finding in the census is that 21 of the women killed between 2009 and 2015 were involved in pornography and/or prostitution, including two transwomen. The majority of these victims (13 women) were killed by clients, a grim indictment of the sex trade. The most chilling category of victim, though, is perhaps the group of five called “symbolic woman”, which means “cases where a man sought to kill a woman – any woman”. In the purest sense, these are women who were killed for being women, by men who chose them as the outlet for misogynist aggression.

The truth about men’s fatal violence against women has for too many years been obscured under the “isolated incident”. The Femicide Census begins to put that ignorance right: when a man kills a woman, he may act alone, but he acts as part of a culture that normalises men’s possession of women, the availability of women for sexual use, the right to use force against non-compliant or inconvenient women.

With knowledge, action becomes possible: the Femicide Census is a clarion call for specialist refuge services, for support to help women exit prostitution, for drastic reform of attitudes and understanding at every level of society. But the census is also an act of honour to the dead. Over two pages, the census prints the names of all the women to whom it is dedicated: all the women killed by men over the six years it covers. Not “isolated incidents” but women who mattered, women who are mourned, women brutally killed by men, and women in whose memory we must work to prevent future male violence, armed with everything the census tells us.

 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.