The following paper is taken from The Health Scandal by Vernon Coleman, published in 1988 by Sidgwick and Jackson and in 1989 by Mandarin Paperbacks. A new version of The Health Scandal is now available via the shop on this website.
The story of the whooping-cough vaccine provides us with another example of dishonesty and deceit in medicine.
There has been controversy about the whooping-cough vaccine for many years and the Department of Health and Social Security has consistently managed to convince the majority of medical staff to support the official line that the vaccine is both safe and effective. Once again the official DHSS line pays little attention to the facts. Put bluntly, the DHSS (on behalf of successive governments) has consistently lied about the risks and problems associated with the whooping-cough vaccine.
I’ll explain exactly why I think that governments have lied (and this is not intended as a slight on any one political party – as far as I’m aware all political parties have followed exactly the same line on this matter) a little later. For the time being I’d like to concentrate solely on the facts.
The first point that should be made is that although official spokesmen claim otherwise, the whooping-cough vaccine has never had much of an influence on the number of children dying from whooping cough. The dramatic fall in the number of deaths caused by the disease came well before the vaccine was widely available and was, historians agree, the result of improved public health measures and, indirectly, the use of antibiotics.
It was in 1957 that the whooping-cough vaccine was first introduced nationally in Britain – although the vaccine was tried out in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But the incidence of whooping cough_, and the number of children dying from the disease, had both fallen very considerably well before 1957. So, for example, while doctors reported 170,000 cases of whooping cough in 1950 they reported only about 80,000 cases in 1955. The introduction of the vaccine really didn’t make very much, if any, difference to the fall in the incidence of the disease. Even today, thirty years after the introduction of the vaccine, whooping-cough cases are still running at about 1,000 a week in Britain.
Similarly, the figures show that the introduction of the vaccine had no effect on the number of children dying from whooping cough. The mortality rate associated with the disease had been falling appreciably since the early part of the twentieth century and rapidly since the 1930s and 1940s – showing a particularly steep decline after the introduction of the sulphonamide drugs. Whooping cough is undoubtedly an extremely unpleasant disease but it has not been a major killer for many years. The DHSS has frequently forecast fresh whooping-cough epidemics but none of the forecast epidemics has produced the devastation predicted. My second point is that the whooping-cough vaccine is neither very efficient nor is it safe. The efficiency of the vaccine is of subsidiary interest – although thousands of children who have been vaccinated do still get the disease – the greatest controversy surrounds the safety of the vaccine. The DHSS has always claimed that serious adverse reactions to the whooping-cough vaccine are extremely rare and the official suggestion is that the risk of a child being brain damaged by the vaccine is no higher than one in 100,000. Now leaving aside the fact that I find a risk of one in 100,000 unacceptable, it is interesting to examine this figure a little more closely, for after a little research work it becomes clear that the figure of one in 100,000 is a guess.
Over the last decade or two, numerous researchers have studied the risks of brain damage following whooping-cough vaccination and their results make fascinating reading. Between 1960 and 1981, for example, nine reports were published showing that the risk of brain damage varied between one in 6,000 and one in 100,000. The average was a risk of one in 50,000. It is clear from these figures that the DHSS has simply chosen the figure which showed the whooping cough vaccine to be least risky. Moreover, the one in 100,000 figure did not come from any rock solid research. It was itself an estimate – a guess.
These are just a couple of the important facts about the whoopingcough vaccine that have been ignored or overlooked or disguised by the DHSS. But they are not the only facts that have been distorted.
Although the DHSS consistently claims that whooping cough is a dangerous disease, the figures show that it is not the indiscriminate killer it is made out to be. Whooping cough causes around four deaths a year in Britain. Compare that to approximately 300 deaths caused by tuberculosis and 100 deaths caused by meningitis. Most of the victims of whooping cough are babies under three months old. That fact is particularly important because the vaccine is never given to babies under three months old.
The truth about the whooping-cough vaccine is that it has always been a disaster. The vaccine has already been withdrawn in other countries because of the amount of brain damage associated with its use. In Japan, Sweden and West Germany the vaccine has been omitted from regular vaccination schedules. In America two out of three whooping-cough vaccine manufacturers have stopped making the vaccine because of the cost of lawsuits. On 6 December 1985 the Journal of the American Medical Association published a major report showing that the whooping-cough vaccine is, without doubt, linked to the development of serious brain damage. And even here in Britain the DHSS has been so worried about the vaccine that for ten years it has been paying research workers at Porton Down to search for ways to make a new, safer, more effective whooping-cough vaccine. At long last, after a £5 million research programme, a new vaccine is indeed being tested on children.
The final nail in the coffin lid is the fact that the British Government has already paid out compensation to the parents of some 800 children who have been brain damaged by the whooping-cough vaccine. Some parents who accepted damages a few years ago were given £10,000. More recently parents have been getting £20,000.
It is a startling fact that for many years now the whooping-cough vaccine has been killing or severely injuring more children than the disease itself. Since 1979 around 800 children (or their parents) have received money from the Government for vaccine-produced brain damage. In the same period less than 100 children have been killed by whooping cough. I think that makes the vaccine more dangerous than the disease. And that, surely, is quite unacceptable. So, why has the DHSS continued to encourage doctors to use the vaccine?
There are two possible explanations. The first explanation is the more generous of the two and concerns the Government’s responsibility for the health of the community as a whole. The theory here is that by encouraging millions of parents to have their children vaccinated the Government can reduce the incidence of the disease in the community. In the long run this reduces the risk of there being any future epidemics of whooping cough. In other words the Government risks the lives of individual children for the good of the next generation.
The second, less charitable explanation is that the DHSS is looking after its own interests by continuing to claim that the whooping-cough vaccine is safe enough to use. In 1987 there were 258 sets of parents preparing to sue the DHSS for damages. They claim that the whooping-cough vaccine damaged their children. They are claiming something in the region of £250,000 each. If the DHSS withdrew the whooping-cough vaccine, it would be admitting that the vaccine was dangerous. And it would obviously lose its court cases. Such an admission would, therefore, cost it 258 times £250,000.
And that would be just the beginning for there are, you will remember, 800 sets of parents who have already received payments from the Government of either £10,000 or £20,000. If the DHSS admitted liability (and those payments did not include an admission of liability), then it is fair to assume that the DHSS would find itself with several hundred more lawsuits – and a damages bill running into billions of pounds.
Whatever explanation you consider most accurate the unavoidable fact is that the Government (in the form of the DHSS) has consistently lied about the whooping-cough vaccine, has distorted the truth and has deceived both the medical profession (for the majority of doctors and nurses who give these injections accept the recommendations made by the DHSS without question) and millions of parents.
The DHSS may have saved itself a tidy sum in damages. But the cost to the nation’s health has been enormous. And this, remember, is merely one more example of the way in which the truth has been distorted by those whom we trust to provide us with honest, accurate advice about medicine and health care.