Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Column, January 24, 2005

EDWARD Jenner had it easy.
The discoverer of vaccination didn’t have to get his ideas past an ethics committee did he?
And it would have made for an interesting conversation if he had.
“Yes, Mr Jenner, and what exactly is your proposed experiment?”
“Well, I know this milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes, lovely girl, got cowpox though, and I’m going to get a bit of the nasty stuff from her pocks and deliberately infect a little lad called James Phipps.”
“Now here’s the good bit, because after James has had the cowpox, I’m going to deliberately try to infect him with smallpox, yes, I know it’s a known killer, but trust me, I know what I’m doing.”
Little James survived the experiment and vaccination was born. But even then, although it was proven that Jenner’s discovery would save countless lives, there was a Luddite minority that refused to allow their children to be immunised.
It was mainly a religious objection, as some clergy felt it was ungodly to inject people with material from a diseased animal.
Jenner only had to point to his results though, and the fact it saved so many lives soon won over objectors.
Fortunately for Jenner there was an incomplete knowledge of the immune system back then and he didn’t have to put up with suspicious parents claiming his new-fangled vaccination would ‘overload’ their child’s immune system and turn them autistic.
I wonder what Jenner would have made of the MMR controversy.
The ongoing refusal to take up a jab which saves lives and prevents suffering has now resulted in a mumps outbreak in North Wales.
More than 1,500 cases of the disease were reported in the region last month – a 25 per cent rise on the previous year.
So what, those of you who have decided to rely on luck rather than vaccination to protect your child from it, might think, mumps is a bit of a comedy disease isn’t it? Swollen cheeks, a few days off school and that’s it.
Well for most children maybe. Provided your child is one of the lucky ones that gets a mild infection.
There is no treatment for mumps. If there are complications it can leave boys infertile. Serious complications can mean meningitis.
Prior to 1988 mumps was the commonest cause of viral meningitis among children. You know what they introduced in 1988 don’t you? That’s right – MMR.
So there are now 1,500 people in North Wales infected with a disease that could, in a worst case, lead to an unvaccinated child developing meningitis.
I wonder what the parents of those children who have not had the jab are doing to prevent them coming into contact with those infected with mumps?
Not very much is my guess, they’re relying on luck because they don’t trust science. They did that in Jenner’s day and smallpox was killing one in three people it infected until he came up with a means of preventing it.
Now more people are getting mumps and if that’s happening more children will be getting measles and rubella as well.
Again, most of the time they’re not fatal, but the complicated cases can be and the effect of a pregnant woman coming into contact with a child infected with rubella can be terrible the unborn child can develop defects of the heart, eyes and brain as a result.
So your unvaccinated child might shrug off a case of rubella, but are you keeping him or her away from every pregnant woman? It’s an airborne disease so that means keeping them away from any public place where they might infect someone.
Again, my suspicion is not. Those who are prepared to take risks with their own children’s lives on the basis of pure suspicions are likely to display the same cavalier attitude to the health of those they do not even know.
And measles, well, we all know that measles kills don’t we? According to the World Health Organisation it is the leading cause of vaccine-preventable childhood mortality. There are 30 million cases every year and 875,000 deaths caused by this preventable disease.
And yet despite this fact the NHS has had to formally warn parents against the practice of ‘measles parties’ where they would deliberately put their children in contact with an infected child in order to infect them and so build a natural immunity to the disease.
This in spite of the fact that the complications to measles, which include pneumonia and encephalitis, are quite common and that the death rate, though low, is one per thousand. You wouldn’t want your child to be that one in a thousand would you, just for going to a party?
Parents have a right to choose not to give their children MMR. Sadly their children are too young to assert their right to be protected against these diseases.
But if you’ve chosen not to immunise your child, what are you doing to protect tem now there is a mumps outbreak in North Wales?
And what will you do when measles arrives? Trusting to luck might not be enough.

GIVEN the fact that it was reportedly Gordon Brown who scuppered our chances of having a national holiday on St David’s Day it’s a bit rich him now suggesting a day to celebrate Britishness.
It’s rather odd to prevent a special day for the Welsh, an identity which means something to people, and then promote a celebration of Britishness, which means very little.
The strength of Britain, and the reason its composite parts have not split much earlier in its history, is that being British always mean being Welsh, Scots or English. It has always been a composite identity.
When people are able to express what they like about being British, what they most often describe are the attributes of their particular corner of the UK.
And surely if the idea of being British is to survive, then that it its only hope, to celebrate its constituent parts in all their diversity rather than some fictitious lumpen identity which none of us recognise.
And Gordon could make a start by loosening his grip on his wallet and giving us a holiday on St David’s Day.

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