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Mr. Phil Hope (Corby): The hon. Gentleman talked about providing public information and people knowing the issues surrounding all those communicable diseases. In my constituency, we have established the sure start programme, in which parents of very young children get advice and support and go somewhere where they can talk about the issues among themselves and to health professionals. Would the Opposition, if they were ever to come to power, keep or abolish the £500 million spend on the sure start programme, which is doing so much good in my constituency?
Dr. Fox: I am not aware of the details of the programme in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but similar programmes work very well in other constituencies. Where publicly funded information programmes--established by that mechanism or other mechanisms which I should be happy to examine--ensure that the public feel confident about the information that they receive, that should be encouraged. This is a simple message about trying to reassure the public.
That is one of the biggest problems that we have as politicians. In the light of CJD and the fact that the public are necessarily sceptical about the evidence that scientists give them, Members of Parliament need to reassure them by every possible mechanism if they are to have confidence in public health policy and be part of the numbers required to make that policy work.
We also need to look at the resources provided for sterilisation units in our hospitals. We have heard recent examples of hospitals cancelling routine surgery because of a lack of confidence in their sterilisation equipment. Those things need to be considered as part of a wider policy review.
Finally, will the Secretary of State tell the House more about the details of the Government's sexual health strategy, which we have been promised for some time? However, according to the Public Health Laboratory Service, there has recently been a rapid increase in acute sexually transmitted disease infections. Since 1995, cases of chlamydia, for example, have risen by 76 per cent.; gonorrhoea by 55 per cent.; syphilis by 54 per cent.; and genital warts by 20 per cent. There have also been outbreaks of infectious syphilis in the homosexual community in Brighton and Manchester. Those trends are extremely worrying.
I hope that the areas that I have outlined to the Secretary of State will make it clear that, potentially, there are areas of wide agreement between us. Failures in public health policy, particularly in relation to communicable diseases, are not acceptable. Those diseases put everyone at unnecessary risk. We can stop that, and we know how; it is simply a matter of having the will to do so. The Government will have our support if they put those measures in place. The Secretary of State now has a chance to ask for that support.
The hon. Member for Woodspring alluded also to the flu vaccine programme. As he knows, flu vaccine has been made available for the very first time to people 65 and over. In the three months to January 2001--thanks to the hard work of family doctors, practice nurses, health authorities and others--65 per cent. of the eligible
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I support the Government's programme to deal with meningitis. However, does the Secretary of State realise that, because of the smaller number of meningitis C cases, there is a slight danger that the public will become complacent about the other strains of meningitis? The number of cases of other strains of meningitis has increased. The danger of headlines proclaiming "Meningitis solved", rather than "The meningitis C situation is improved" is that fewer people will be able to recognise the symptoms. There is still a long way to go on those other strains.
Mr. Milburn: The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and he speaks with some knowledge on these issues. As he is probably aware from the chief medical officer's press release early in the new year, that is precisely what Professor Donaldson was warning us against. We have made real progress on meningitis C, but a vaccine is not yet available for the other strains. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we have to make more progress on those strains; of course we do.
The example of meningitis C demonstrates the importance of technology. The case is often made against the national health service that it lags behind other health services which have a better proven record in dealing with some health issues. Sadly, even in this country, people very often assume that the NHS is not up to scratch. However, meningitis C is a case in which the national health service has shown that it is leading the world, and that is capable of leading the world providing that we have the courage and the conviction to do the right thing, which is to put in the investment.
It is sometimes risky to be at the leading edge. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras took that risk, and it was the right risk to take. The consequence is that lives have been saved.
The hon. Member for Woodspring also raised the issue of MMR vaccination. It is a very serious issue, and I should like to deal with it in some detail. I should start by saying that many parents understandably feel confused, and sometimes fearful, about the MMR vaccine. I fully understand those concerns, to which all hon. Members should listen extremely carefully.
For us as parents, there are always real dilemmas when it comes to protecting our children. All of us want to do what is right by our children. As parents that is our responsibility. We want to obtain the best advice and the best information so that we can make the best decisions for our children. There is also no doubt that reassurances from politicians--and, in the past, from scientists and others, most notably in relation to the BSE scandal--have made people more sceptical about the advice and information that they receive whether from government or from other quarters. That is just a fact of life, and we all have to deal with it as responsibly as possible. That goes for hon. Members and certainly for the media who report on events in this place.
The Government also have a responsibility to do what is right. We have to make decisions and policy according to the best evidence available--as the hon. Member for Woodspring was calling for us to do as recently as Monday, in our debate on the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill.
All of the major health organisations in the UK support the MMR programme. Prior to the introduction of MMR there were thousands of cases of measles, mumps and rubella--and dozens of children died. This need not happen again. MMR is scientifically proven to be the safest and most effective way to protect children from disease.
The new report by Dr. Wakefield does not present any evidence to change this view. There is a real concern about his advice that the vaccines should be given separately, since children would be left unnecessarily unprotected from these potentially serious diseases. We strongly recommend that children are protected with MMR and not left at risk.
The vast majority of parents do get their children vaccinated but some parents remain concerned. We want to listen to these concerns and to work with parents and health professionals to provide reassurance and the best possible advice.
The combination vaccine is recommended rather than monovalent presentation when available and the disease burden justifies its use.
There has been no new scientific evidence that would suggest impaired safety of MMR. On the contrary, all results from vaccine trials published reaffirm the high safety and efficacy of MMR vaccine.