Sarah Boseley: The meningitis C scare

Pity the poor parent now facing the prospect of having their child vaccinated against meningitis C. Last autumn, when the new, life-saving jab was launched against a disease that held only terror for anybody with a family, it all seemed so simple. People were camping out in their GP's waiting room, determined to get their child protected. They wrote furious letters to the authorities, demanding to know why only babies and teenagers could be vaccinated. They were outraged by talk of vaccine shortages.

But that was a few short seasons ago. Since then, a slow and soggy summer - in terms of news stories - has turned all that hope and conviction into a quagmire of uncertainty. First the Express and then the Observer have alleged the meningitis C vaccine is not as safe as the experts insist. The Observer said 11 deaths had been linked to the jab, and there had been a cover-up.

The chief medical officer went into an apoplectic spin, and with some justification. These stories were based on data from the yellow card system - not the smartest way of recording side-effects from medical treatment, but the only one the UK has. Doctors are asked to send in a yellow card to the Medicines Control Agency if any of their patients has an unexpected reaction while on a drug or medication. So when a patient dies suddenly and they have recently been vaccinated against meningitis C, some GPs will feel moved to send in a yellow card.

What the MCA is collecting is raw data. It needs investigation. Each of the 12 (not 11) deaths reported on yellow cards in which vaccination was mentioned has been investigated. And, say the committee on safety of medicines and the joint committee on vaccinations and immunisation, who issued a high-level rebuttal, none of the deaths were due to the jab. So why did these 12 people die? Seven were babies who died of sudden infant death syndrome - cot death - which peaks in the age group being given the vaccination. Two died of meningitis B - time and again public health officials have warned that the C vaccine does not protect against the B strain. One had pneumococcal septicaemia, one died of bronchiolitis and one from pneumonia.

It's pretty hard to support the hypothesis that the meningitis C vaccination caused all these deaths once you know the facts - although the conspiracy theorists who abound in the anti-vaccination lobby would no doubt still try. But if newspapers can get it wrong, how are people with much less access to those in the know supposed to get it right?

The fact is that vaccinations are scary. The big hard truth about them is that each one of us, in taking our child along, is being asked to do the sort of risk assessment that for decades we were not thought grown-up enough to tackle. Doctors used to do it for us and lay down the law - vaccination saves lives, even if some people suffer side-effects from it, and therefore you will be vaccinated. That is not on any more.

But we are in transition. Because doctors used to refuse to admit there were risks, we still do not believe them when they tell us there are risks, but they are tiny in comparison to the horror of children's deaths. To complicate matters further, we are asked not to consider the risk to our own child - but the safety of the entire vulnerable population. Vaccination only keeps disease at bay if the whole herd is immunised. Public health officials fear a measles outbreak is imminent because of parents' reluctance to take children for the MMR jab, born of what they claim are groundless fears.

If we are to be able to make a cool, calm, rational judgement about any vaccination, we need absolute openness. All the facts have to be on the table. The MCA has always been the most secretive of government agencies, suspected of being hand in glove with drug companies. That has to change. The meningitis C vaccine has already cut meninigitis cases by 85% among those vaccinated - seven in the last three months instead of 45 last year. But for such vaccinations to continue to save lives we need to be able to trust the people who tell us we have nothing to fear.

• Sarah Boseley is the Guardian's health correspondent. This column will appear fortnightly.

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