Opinion: DoH must tell the truth about vaccination

The announcement last week that the Government is to phase out traces of mercury from some childhood vaccinations and introduce a five-in-one jab illustrates the communications tightrope that public health PROs walk. It also shows how wobbly the line that all vaccinations are essentially safe is proving to be.

With MMR, adoption plummeted to below 80 per cent - well under the minimum target of 92 per cent - during three years of well-publicised fears and case studies about apparent adverse reaction to the jabs.

A large section of the public resisted the official messages they were receiving, and yet neither the policy nor the communications tactics changed.

While the Department of Health opens advice lines for recreational drugs, it resists doing the same for vaccinations. Instead of discussing balancing risk regarding MMR, the DoH tried to up the ante on those voicing concerns by insisting their claims were spurious.

Public health is definitely put at risk by falling vaccination levels, but a one-size-fits-all message and provision are wrong. A difficult truth appears to be emerging about the content of some of the vaccinations given to some - again, only some - children. The medical evidence on substances like mercury is slowly emerging to support the uncomfortably large minority of parents whose children have experienced problems post-vaccination.

While thimerosal is being withdrawn, and with it a live strain of polio vaccine, the Government and the Health Protection Agency are adding a fifth vaccine into the usual cocktail of four, at the same time as apparently making them safer. Given that overload on tiny bodies is a major factor in the anti-multiple-vaccination lobby, it would seem that the Government is snatching victory from its own jaws on this one.

Instead of appearing to bow gracefully to public pressure about unneccessary toxin levels in childhood vaccinations, the Government sticks to its guns of denying there are toxicity issues - so much so that it will impose old vaccines for the next six weeks until there are sufficient stocks of the new formula throughout the country.

The DoH may have sound motives, but it is denying choice. The result with the five-in-one jab could be the same as MMR: parents will give it to their children with great trepidation - or not at all.

Julia Hobsbawm is professor of public relations at the London College of Communication. Kate Nicholas is on maternity leave.

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