UK Telegraph Tuesday 18 January 2011
Doctors ordered to stop giving flu jabs to children
Health officials have ordered doctors to shelve a vaccination programme which was under way to protect children from swine flu.
By Laura Donnelly, Health Correspondent 10:15AM GMT 16 Jan 2011
Doctors in north-west England began giving jabs to healthy schoolchildren earlier this month, after senior medics decided that stocks of vaccine should be used to prevent the spread of disease among the young.
The decision, taken by Bury Primary Care Trust (PCT), came 11 days ago, following more than a dozen deaths in Greater Manchester, including three in Bury, as well as that of three-year-old Lana Ameen, who died on Boxing Day soon after falling ill in nearby Stockport.
Parents were told that their children would be offered the jabs, and hundreds of pupils at two schools in Bury, Derby High School and Prestwich Arts College, were given the vaccine.
But on Tuesday, bosses at North West Strategic Health Authority (SHA) ordered doctors and nurses to stop providing the jabs and now hundreds more families have been informed that their children will not be offered protection after all.
Local doctors say the change of plan to bring the area in line with official Government restrictions has left parents feeling fearful and anxious.
Government policy says that while pregnant women, the elderly, and those with health problems are supposed to be offered the vaccine, healthy children should not be given it, despite high incidence of flu among the young this winter.
With rising numbers of deaths among children, the Government policy is under increasing attack.
Dr Peter Elton, director of public health for Bury PCT, had ordered the vaccination of children, starting with five schools, after considering research in medical journal The Lancet, which showed particular risks of flu complications among ethnic minorities.
He said that the programme was sensible, because "stopping just one child from needing intensive care treatment more than pays for vaccinating the whole school".
The decision, taken at a meeting of the PCT on January 5, had been backed by local doctors.
The PCT now says it changed its stance last week "based on further advice received from the SHA".
Dr Rakesh Thakker, a local GP, said the move by the SHA to block the vaccinations had left parents anxious.
He said: "I was involved in the decision to vaccinate healthy children we thought it was in the best interests of our local population.
"It is difficult when that decision gets overruled the change of plan has caused significant problems and concerns among parents, who don't know what to think."
On Friday, the father of Lana Ameen, who died aged three after falling ill in nearby Stockport, spoke of his grief and fury over the Government's refusal to vaccinate children.
Dr Zana Ameen, an NHS doctor, had sought the jab for his young daughter, but had been told she was not eligible. She died on Boxing Day, after falling ill while the family visited relatives.
He said: "As a doctor, I can't think of any medical reasons not to make it available to young children. The only possible reason can be saving money."
Last winter, children under the age of five were offered the swine flu jab, but this season, Government advisers said children should only be vaccinated if they had health problems, refusing to change the advice even as flu reached epidemic levels among young children.
Documents have shown that last January, a majority of a committee of scientists advising the Government on the vaccination programme thought children should be included in the programme, yet inexplicably changed their mind weeks later.
As flu rates among young children soared, the group held emergency talks two weeks ago but decided that there would be insufficient "gain", as rates of flu were likely to fall soon.
Figures published on Thursday show the number of flu deaths has doubled in a week, up from 50 to 112.
Influenza experts said they had "a lot of sympathy" with angry and anxious parents who have been trawling private clinics, and even going abroad in search of vaccines.
On parenting website Mumsnet, mothers described desperate attempts to find centres which would give the jab, with some private clinics charging more than 200 for it.
Others said they had used family trips to France and Switzerland to have their children immunised, while several mothers of young children said they were keeping them away from school and nursery because of their concerns.
Prof John Oxford, a flu expert at Queen Mary, University of London, said: "I have a lot of sympathy for parents in this situation, I can see why they would be anxious."
He said that he felt "uneasy" about the Government approach to the flu outbreak, and that it appeared to be "stumbling" into decisions, such as the late move to launch a national advertising campaign last month, and Friday's decision to use old stocks of swine flu vaccine to plug shortages of seasonal jabs.
Microbiologist Prof Hugh Pennington said he was "very disappointed" by the decision not to offer the jab to children, contrasting advice in this country with that in the US where it is routinely given.
He said: "Some babies have already died from swine flu this winter, and undoubtedly there will be more deaths the numbers are small, but these deaths are preventable."