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17 January 2011

The government’s inaction on swine flu threatens lives

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

By Dominic Ponsford

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.”

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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.