The MMR vaccine that
was initially used for children in the UK’s national programme launched
in 1988 contained a particular strain of mumps, called Urabe. It was blamed
for the deaths of several children after being withdrawn by the department
of health in 1992.
Since we posted this report on March 5, the department of health has contacted us to point out that it insists that no MMR has caused any deaths.
Previously confidential Whitehall documents, re-leased under the freedom of information act (FOIA), show how government health officials and experts gradually learnt from 1987 of the dangers of Urabe MMR, which causes encephalitis-type conditions, including meningitis, in some cases.
These conditions – which variously involve swelling of the brain or of the lining of the brain or spinal chord – can lead to brain damage, deafness or even death.
The documents – minutes of Whitehall committ-ees that considered the introduction of the nationwide MMR programme – show that several months before the launch of the triple-vaccine in October 1988 in the UK, officials were made aware of problems in three countries: America, Sweden and Canada. We have established that the data from Canada related specifically to Urabe MMR, while the figures from America and Sweden concerned the form of MMR that replaced it in the UK in 1992.
In February 1988, members of the government’s MMR working party read, what the minutes describe as, “a report of cases of mumps encephalitis which had been associated with MMR vaccine containing the Urabe strain of the mumps virus” in Canada, which had led authorities there to stop using Urabe MMR.
The documents show that, in each instance, the committees concluded that the statistical risk from Urabe MMR was low.
The UK went ahead with its nationwide MMR programme in which 85% of the triple-vaccines contained Urabe. MMR combines mild forms of three viruses to vaccinate children against measles, mumps and rubella.
The warnings from overseas continued, but it took the UK government until 1992 to stop using Urabe MMR. Officials replaced it with MMR II, which, instead of Urabe, has the Jeryl Lynn strain of mumps. The risk of encephalitis-type conditions associated with Jeryl Lynn MMR is much lower than with Urabe MMR.
Parents of children who suffered encephalitis-type conditions soon after receiving Urabe MMR between 1988 and 1992 have reacted angrily to the revelations.
Armed with the disclosures, one mother wrote to the chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, challenging him over the UK’s use of Urabe MMR despite the known risks.
She received two replies. Professor Kent Woods, chief executive officer of the medicines and healthcare products regulatory agency, confirmed that the UK authorities had been aware of “sporadic cases” in Canada. However, he said, the risk of meningo-encephalitis from Urabe MMR was lower than the risk of the same condition resulting from “wild-type mumps virus”.
Urabe MMR was withdrawn “following reports of generally mild transient meningitis caused by the mumps vaccine virus in some children who recently received the Urabe mumps vaccine containing products.”
And Donaldson replied, saying: “As soon as the department of health had clear evidence that there was a risk with Urabe-containing MMR and that there was no such associated risk with a different strain of mumps virus (the Jeryl Lynn strain) used in an alternative MMR vaccine, the department moved quickly to discontinue use.”
The Liberal Democrats' shadow health secretary, Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk, said that he would be pressing the department of health on why the warnings were dismissed.
The government insists that it acted swiftly as soon as it became aware of the dangers of Urabe MMR in September 1992.
The department of health, asked why it used Urabe MMR in 1988, instead of MMRII, when it knew of the risk of adverse reactions, and why it took until 1992 to replace Urabe MMR, said: “The UK investigated the evidence and acted promptly when this problem with Urabe strain of mumps vaccine was identified.
“On the basis of information obtained in studies, the UK was in a position to make an informed decision on whether to continue using the Urabe vaccine, as there was an alternative vaccine strain, called Jeryl Lynn, which did not appear to have the same risk.
“The MMR vaccines that contained the Urabe mumps vaccine strain were, therefore, no longer supplied to the NHS in this country from September 1992.
“Others countries continued to use these brands after the department of health decided to discontinue supply of them to the NHS. The UK's decision influenced other European countries, many of which followed suit.
“In 1992, the committee on safety of medicine considered all of the evidence and concluded that the benefits of vaccinating with Urabe mumps strain vaccines still outweighed the risks.”
Another version of this article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph. The minutes were obtained by the FOIA Centre acting on behalf of one of the parents of a child in a group bringing litigation at the high court against various pharmaceutical companies over MMR.
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