Most safety studies on childhood vaccines have not been
conducted thoroughly enough to tell whether the jabs cause side effects, a
leading authority on vaccine research has warned.
Dr Thomas Jefferson, who has been funded to investigate vaccine
safety by the European Commission, said that the issue was the
"Cinderella" of public health research and that Government officials
had failed to make it a high priority.
Dr Jefferson is the head of the vaccine division of the
Cochrane Collaboration, an organisation of scientists that aims to make accurate
information about the effects of treatments available worldwide and promotes
high standards in research.
He is also a board member of the European Programme for
Improved Vaccine Safety Surveillance, set up by the commission.
He said: "There is some good research, but it is
overwhelmed by the bad. The public has been let down because the proper studies
have not been done."
His outspoken and unprecedented comments will anger public
health officials in Britain and elsewhere, who fear that any discussion will
undermine parents' confidence in national vaccination programmes.
Officials at the Department of Health are already alarmed by
the number of parents shunning the triple measles, mumps and rubella jab (MMR)
after claims that it is linked with autism and bowel disease.
Although Dr Jefferson emphasised that there was no evidence to
suggest that any vaccine now in use was dangerous, he said that there was a
"dearth" of sound studies on the risks and benefits.
As a result, the information available on the safety of
vaccines that are routinely given to babies and toddlers was "simply
Dr Jefferson also disclosed plans for a Europe-wide electronic
register of children's vaccine exposure that would allow scientists to
investigate the risks and benefits of inoculations using data on thousands of
participants. Pilot schemes will start soon in Sweden and Finland.
"We need such a system urgently," he said.
"Governments are reluctant to accept this but in my view they owe it to
future generations to back this idea."
He was especially concerned, he said, because future
vaccination programmes were likely to involve giving children "five, six,
even seven vaccines all at once".
A vaccine designed to protect children against measles, mumps,
rubella and chickenpox in one shot is already under development.
"For people like me, it is becoming more and more
difficult to tease out what problems may be due to an individual vaccine,"
said Dr Jefferson.
"It is almost becoming impossible to do this. We have to
think very carefully about how we will monitor these vaccines.
"We have a responsibility to these children - they are our
future. It is no use having a situation where someone suggests a possible harm
and everyone runs around frantically trying to find bits of evidence. What is
required is good-quality information that has been systematically collated and