A NATIONAL offensive to reassure worried parents about the new five-in-one vaccine for babies is to be launched.
Thousands of GPs, nurses and health visitors are to attend "immunisation update seminars" this week on the instruction of Scottish Executive health chiefs. At the sessions - to be run by health boards across Scotland - staff will be given factsheets and presented with research supporting the new combined jab.
They will be advised on how to deal with parents' concerns about the vaccine, which is being introduced to protect against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio and hib, a bacterial infection that can lead to meningitis.
A booklet, A Guide To Immunisation For Babies Up To 15 Months Of Age, is also to be distributed to NHS 24 and every GP surgery, health centre and pharmacy in the country ahead of next month's introduction of the vaccine for eight-week-olds.
The moves come amid concern at the introduction of the combined jab. The change has sparked protests from campaign groups who fear the jab could have adverse effects.
To add to the confusion, the government also announced that the new five-in-one jab will not contain the mercury-based preservative thiomersal, recently linked to autism-like damage in the brains of mice by US researchers at Columbia University.
However, despite the announcement that the mercury is to be scrapped, parents are being told their children must be inoculated with the current thiomersal-based vaccine until the end of September.
The controversy over the safety of the MMR jab for measles, mumps and rubella - which has also been linked to autism - means many parents are worried about multiple vaccines and may not want their children to have the new one.
This week's offensive is an attempt to head off a repeat of the hysteria that surrounded MMR.
The Sunday Herald can reveal that a letter was initially sent out by health chiefs in Glasgow in late June urging staff to sign up for immunisation update seminars. Although there was no specific mention of the change to a five-in-one jab, the letter - from Glasgow's immunisation co-ordinator Dr Syed Ahmed - warned: "We strongly recommend that you attend one of these update seminars."
Ahmed will lead two sessions for around 400 health workers, the first of which will be held at the Southern General Hospital tomorrow. Demand has been so great that a third talk has been added for early next month.
He said: "The seminars are intended for health practitioners who are going to be answering parental queries so they have all the facts and the scientific data available.
"I will provide them with the background scientific data that supports the change in policy. All the healthcare workers will receive the scientific data in the next couple of weeks. It will be a 50-page factsheet so they have all the information.
"Clearly, parents will have a lot of questions, but if we can educate our healthcare professionals they can answer their concerns."
In June, immunisation co-ordinators of Scotland's 15 health boards met with the Scottish Executive and were instructed that it was "good practice" for each to hold seminars with their GPs, nurses and health visitors.
Last night, NHS Lanarkshire confirmed it would be running sessions for its staff. "I would be surprised if any health board did not do this," Ahmed added. "Given the ongoing concern about the vaccines, it's important that they do this."
Ahmed and his colleagues have been frustrated by the confusion surrounding the new five-in-one, called Pediacel, which will replace the current mercury-based four-in-one vaccine and an oral vaccine used for polio.
Sara Richards, vice-president of the Practice Nurses Association, said members had reported that some parents had refused to have their children immunised until the new formula was available because of concerns about thiomersal.
"We know that a few parents have decided to wait," she said. "There is a lot of anxiety out there."
But Ahmed warned that if parents waited they were putting their children at risk of serious disease. "Every scientific body, including the World Health Organisation, has looked at the thiomersal issue and nobody has found any link with autism," he said.
"Every year in Scotland about 100 babies are hospitalised with a severe form of whooping cough. It is a disease that is occurring now. About 10% die and most are under four or five months.
"If parents make a decision to postpone it on a purely hypothetical risk from thiomersal, they are exposing their children to risk for another month. We hope that our health professionals will be able to explain that to parents."
Earlier, Dr Mac Armstrong, chief medical officer for Scotland, warned infants were at maximum risk from childhood diseases at the point when they were due for the injection.
He warned parents: "Don't delay, immunise today."
Tory health spokesman David Davidson urged the Scottish Executive to give parents the option of single jabs, adding he was fearful that unless it was offered "a crisis could be brewing".
A spokeswoman at NHS Health Scotland confirmed that information leaflets about the five-in-one vaccine changes would be made available from tomorrow, firstly at NHS 24 then later at GPs' surgeries.
Copyright 2004 SMG Sunday Newspapers Ltd.
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