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Prof Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer
Prof Liam Donaldson, Chief Medical Officer
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: SIR LIAM DONALDSON CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER FEBRUARY 10TH, 2002

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: The government has gone into overdrive to try and reassure the public that the MMR combined vaccine is safe. The Prime Minister's website carries page after page of endorsements and a major advertising blitz is now being planned, we're told. But a Mori poll for the News of the World indicates that 40 per cent of parents are unconvinced and the Independent on Sunday, as we just saw just now doing the papers warned starkly, government policy in meltdown. So what's gone wrong? Well with me is the government's Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson, Liam good morning?

LIAM DONALDSON: Good morning David.

DAVID FROST: In the, in the front page of the Independent on Sunday about the alleged meltdown it says that you are probably going to take the unusual step of actually addressing the nation yourself, is that true?

LIAM DONALDSON: We haven't finalised the arrangements yet but we do feel that my, my concern is the same concern as parents, we want concerned parents to have information that they can make the best choice for their children and at the moment we feel that that message isn't getting through.

DAVID FROST: But they don't, right so you're planning to speak out?

LIAM DONALDSON: Yes and it isn't just the overwhelming evidence in favour of the MMR vaccine, it's also the dangers associated with the single vaccine because single vaccine if introduced in a mixed programme with MMR, all the experience suggests that that would leave children unprotected from three potentially serious and deadly diseases in some cases.

DAVID FROST: But in the paragraph before that one you said about so parents can have a choice and so on, but in fact that's the key question at the moment, isn't it, that parents do not have a choice, why can't they have a choice?

LIAM DONALDSON: Well the choice is on the whole a good thing but in this particular instance where the option of a single vaccine introduced alongside the MMR vaccine would actually increase the risks for children's health and at the moment we're not getting that message across to parents and we need to go better, get better at it. If I, if I could sit down with every parent in this country and go over their concerns and explain it I'm convinced that I could reassure them, not just of the overwhelming positive safety record of MMR vaccine but also the risks associated with a single vaccine which greatly increases the risk of children contracting these diseases.

DAVID FROST: Because it takes longer?

LIAM DONALDSON: Because it means six separate jabs and there's space between the injections and with the best will in the world the millions of people in this country, not all of them would complete their courses. So uptake levels would fall, these diseases are highly contagious, they would come back into the country. The first group of children to be attacked would be those who were in between their jabs. The second group would be the 750,000 babies in this country who are too small to have had their injections, those are the risks and we must warn parents against the risks.

DAVID FROST: But then at the same time when you say that the low take-up is a problem, when we have things like the News of the World here with its poll showing 40 per cent of people, as they put it, don't trust triple jab, if that is true and if that was reflected in the take-up levels then it would be dangerous not to offer a single jab, if 40 per cent or 30 per cent or 20 per cent of people went through with that then your, your three-way jab would be more dangerous than the fears you have just now because a huge number of people might not take it?

LIAM DONALDSON: Well at the moment 84 per cent of parents across the country are opting for this jab, until the latest round of media pressure the figures were actually going up and we have the lowest level of confirmed measles cases for three years. The last time we gave parents choice was in the 1970s when there was a scare over whooping cough vaccine which turned out to be completely unfounded. We gave a choice of single vaccine, the rates plummeted to 30 per cent, two, a quarter of a million children got whooping cough, some died and some were admitted to hospital.

DAVID FROST: But Liam.

LIAM DONALDSON: We don't want to return to those dark days having had an excellent record, a shield of protection thrown around children in this country for over a decade do we want to throw that shield away, I think that's the question I'm asking today.

DAVID FROST: Right and a hundred per cent, you can't say, can you, that you are 100 per cent certain you're right in what you just said, I mean it's very difficult to prove a negative, I know anyway, but you, you're not a hundred per cent certain, are you?

LIAM DONALDSON: Well we all.

DAVID FROST: You just said it's.

LIAM DONALDSON: We take great pride, David, in keeping an open mind and I take great pride in bringing scientists and scientific opinion from across the world to look at parents' concerns, that's what we can do, that's the resources we have at our disposal and the message is overwhelmingly reassuring to MMR and the dangers of the single vaccine are increasingly becoming apparent as we envisage what would happen if we moved into a chaotic programme in which we mix the two forms of vaccination together and left large numbers of children unprotected from diseases that many young parents have forgotten what it's like to see a child in an intensive care unit with diseases like this.

DAVID FROST: But Doctor Andrew Wakefield has said this week, among other things, that he's found 200 children with the combination of bowel disease and autism who became ill after taking MMR, do you accept his research or do you just think that's scaremongering?

LIAM DONALDSON: We never dismiss any research as scaremongering I, I have many people, many lone researchers writing to me about all sorts of subjects on health, each one of them is very, very carefully scrutinised. Dr Wakefield's group are in a small corner of scientific opinion, the vast majority of other scientific opinion is against them but that doesn't mean that we have to get into criticising them personally. What we have to do is look very critically at their research, we have done in the past, we haven't found any evidence to substantiate their claims and their theories but we will continue to scrutinise that research whenever they come up with anything new and whenever, whenever anybody else comes up with anything new. But so far nothing at all has been shown which could discredit a vaccine which has protected over a billion children around the world.

DAVID FROST: And has the PM's understandable stance on privacy for himself, has that hindered your work at all?

LIAM DONALDSON: I don't think so, no, I can see the thin end of the wedge argument that once you say something about your child's health then you're open to intrusion on other fronts but he's made it very, very clear I think, saying that as a father he wouldn't commend a vaccine to anybody else's children that he wouldn't use for his own and I think that the matter should be put to rest now.

DAVID FROST: And the next move also is some commercials, I read in the paper today, the government are going to put on commercials, you're going to speak to people direct and at the same time commercials are going to be put on the air, is that right?

LIAM DONALDSON: Well I wish I could speak to every mother in the country individually, myself, but that, that's just not possible. My concern is that they remain concerned when the, the overwhelming evidence is enormously reassuring, I'm convinced if I could sit here today with every mother individually in this country I could allay their concerns and we want to try and do that if we possibly can because the arguments are getting extremely distorted at the moment.

DAVID FROST: Well I'm sure a queue is probably forming outside the studio right now, so you have a chance to put that into effect. Liam thank you very much for being with us this morning. Liam Donaldson there on the complex issues of MMR.

END


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