HEALTH chiefs today made an impassioned plea to parents not to boycott baby vaccines.
The head of the Government's immunisation programme insisted a powerful new five-in-one injection protecting babies from diphtheria, tetanus, polio, Hib and whooping cough is safe.
Dr David Salisbury confirmed it will be introduced in England next month.
He also said health chiefs were looking "very carefully" at introducing an additional childhood vaccine designed to protect against pneumococcal meningitis and pneumonia.
Parents' groups are already threatening to boycott the new five- in-one jab, fearing it could carry risks similar to those said to be posed by the MMR (combined measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. The new injection will remove the need for babies to be given a separate polio vaccine and will no longer contain the mercurybased preservative thiomersal, which has been linked to autism.
But pressure groups said the Government has lost credibility after the MMR fiasco when the number of infants having the jab fell to dangerous levels amid fears of autism and bowel disorders.
They say removing thiomersal now shows there are doubts over its safety.
Martin Hewitt, who is taking legal action after his son Thomas developed autism shortly after having MMR, called for a public inquiry into the Government's vaccine policy. He said: "There has been mounting public concern about the lengthening schedule of vaccines given to children, the increase in use of multi-jabs and continuing concern about MMR safety.
"The present change of policy shows that the Government has concerns about the use of mercury, but it is not prepared to admit this in public."
Jackie Fletcher, the founder of Jabs (Justice, Awareness and Basic Support) which helps the parents of vaccine-damaged children, warned the Government that it could be heading for another row.
"With five-in-one vaccines we would want to know what safety trials have taken place," she said. "How did they find out it was safe to do it in this combination? Increasing the combinations increases the potential for an adverse reaction."
Dr Salisbury said he sympathised with parents who will be confused about the change. "I am very sorry for parents who are presently like ping-pong balls who are being battered between experts. It is very difficult for parents to know who to listen to."
He said the reason to remove thiomersal from the vaccine was because of the change in the polio component from live virus to inactivated virus.
Thiomersal would destroy the new inactive virus making it ineffective.
Dr Salisbury said the change was because polio had been almost eradicated worldwide and so the risk of contracting the disease in Britain was virtually nil.
It means the immunisation can change from using live polio to a dead virus which reduces the chances of contracting the disease from the jab without losing its effectiveness.
The whooping cough part of the vaccine has also been changed to reduce side effects in children but provide the same high level of protection.
Dr Salisbury added it was not scares over mercury causing autism that was the reason for the change but it was sensible to reduce exposure to heavy metals in the environment and the fact the vaccine would not work if it contained mercury.
He answered concerns about the risk of overloading a baby's immune system with five vaccines given all at once. He said giving dead viruses instead of live ones reduced the challenge to the immune system. The vaccine, made by Eventis Pasteur, has been used in Canada for seven years where more than 3.5 million doses have been given.
A study involving 18,000 children has also been carried out in Sweden which revealed it was effective and a trial of 240 children in Britain in 2002 showed it performed well.
Finchley GP Dr Ann Robinson said today: "After the MMR debacle, any new announcement of changes in the immunisation programme tends to trigger a panic reaction. In this case, worried parents are asking if they should carry on giving the mercury-containing jab or wait for the new mercury-free version.
"The new jab does seem to be a safer alternative which parents would be well advised to take up."
Vaccine Age How administered
*This will now be incorporated into the DTwP injection Diphtheria, tetanus, whooping
cough and Hib (DTwP) 2, 3 and 4 months one injection Meningitis C 2, 3, and 4 months one injection
Polio 2, 3 and 4 months by mouth*
Measles, mumps and rubella around 13 months one injection Boosters for polio - pre-school between 3 and 5 by mouth Booster for DTwP - pre-school between 3 and 5 one injection BCG (tuberculosis) 10-14 years skin test, then,
Second booster for tetanus
and diphtheria (low dose) 13-18 years one injection
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