Speech by Mr Brian Lenihan at the launch of the revised Immunisation Guidelines for Ireland

I would like to welcome everyone here today including Dr Desmond Canavan, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, and especially Dr Brian Keogh and the members of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee who have worked hard to produce the revised “Immunisation Guidelines for Ireland”. Mr Micheál Martin TD, Minister for Health and Children, had hoped to be with you for this launch but I am delighted to be representing him on this occasion.

The Primary Childhood Immunisation Programme (PCIP) is a key element of the health services in Ireland today. This Programme provides for the immunisation of children against a range of potentially serious infectious diseases. Under the Programme, parents may have their children immunised free of charge by the General Practitioner of their choice. As you know, the schedule of immunisation is guided by the recommendations of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee of the RCPI.

Since Mr Micheál Martin TD, Minister for Health and Children, launched the previous Immunisation Guidelines for Ireland, considerable changes have taken place in the immunisation programme. It is heartening for me to know that there are hardworking, dedicated staff of such a high calibre working constantly in this area, keeping Ireland to the forefront of healthcare standards internationally. Ireland has made great strides in the area of immunisation and disease prevention over the past few decades and this is due in large part to the hard work of those of you here today, your colleagues and your predecessors. I know that all of you work in extremely busy and demanding roles and the fact that, despite many other competing demands, you have obviously given such a sizeable time commitment to produce the document we have here today is testament to your professionalism and dedication to improve the health status of our population.

In the space of a generation we have witnessed the eradication of smallpox and the almost total elimination of several other potentially serious diseases. I am proud to say that my Department recently received certification from the World Health Organisation of Ireland´s polio free status – this is an achievement of which we should feel justifiably proud. I would like to take this opportunity to thank those who were involved over the years with the National Committee for the Certification of the Eradication of Poliomyelitis.

There has also been a huge decline in other illnesses such as measles, tuberculosis and whooping cough. For example, prior to the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1983, there were almost 10,000 cases per year in Ireland and the number has declined very substantially since. However, the fact that we cannot afford to be complacent about what we have achieved is evident from the current low level of immunisation uptake, especially in relation to the MMR vaccine.

There are indications that the incidence of measles is on the increase at present, with several outbreaks of the illness, including one recently in the Western Health Board region. In January 2000, a measles epidemic occurred in the North Dublin region and spread to adjacent areas; this epidemic resulted in approximately 2,000 cases and three measles-related deaths. This underlines the importance of working together to ensure that the immunisation uptake level is raised to the optimal level of 95% against measles and the other potentially serious infections.

I note that the MMR is now recommended at 12-15 months of age and I would urge all health professionals to encourage parents and guardians to have their children vaccinated. The MMR vaccine is in use worldwide; most countries implement a 2-dose MMR vaccine programme and this policy has been very successful in controlling measles where high uptake of the vaccine has been achieved. The primary concern in relation to immunisation is that the vaccines in use are safe and effective. The Irish Medicines Board, the RCPI and the World Health Organisation support the use of MMR on the grounds that it has been demonstrated to be both safe and effective. There is a sound scientific basis for the use of MMR in the national programme.

In order to reassure the public as to the safety of MMR vaccine, Mr Micheál Martin TD, Minister for Health and Children, recently launched a document entitled “Measles, Mumps, Rubella Vaccine Discussion Pack – an information guide for health professionals and parents.” The pack was produced by the National Disease Surveillance Centre and the Department of Public Health of the Southern Health Board and was published by the Health Boards Executive on behalf of the health boards. This document sets out the facts in relation to the most common concerns about MMR in a way that will help health professionals and parents to explore these concerns together, review the evidence in relation to MMR and provide the basis for making an informed decision. The pack addresses such issues as the alleged link between MMR and autism; the safety of the vaccine; combined versus single doses; and contraindications to the vaccine.

While vaccine scares make good headlines, stories of individuals affected by the long-term effects of diseases such as polio, measles and whooping cough which can be prevented by immunisation, rarely achieve similar prominence. Studies in relation to vaccines should be subject to the same rigorous scrutiny as any other scientific research. It is vital that parents are given sufficient accurate and evidence-based information about the benefits of vaccination as well as the possible side-effects to enable them to make an educated and informed choice about their children´s immunisation.

When Minister Martin launched the 1999 Guidelines, he mentioned the fact that a new conjugate vaccine to protect against Group C Meningococcal disease was expected shortly thereafter. I am happy to note that immunisation against Meningitis C is now an integral part of the Primary Childhood Immunisation Programme. This particular vaccine has played an important role in dramatically reducing both the number of cases of Meningitis C and also fatalities as a result of contracting this terrible condition. Data provided by the National Disease Surveillance Centre indicates that in 2001, 35 cases of Group C disease have been notified compared to 139 cases in 2000, a reduction of 75%. The most dramatic reductions were seen in the age groups targeted by the Meningitis C vaccine, ranging from a 93% reduction in 5-9 year olds to a 70% reduction in the 10-14 years age group. This represents a very significant reduction and highlights the importance and success of the campaign.

I would like to take this opportunity to urge all parents to have their children immunised against the diseases covered by the Primary Childhood Immunisation Programme in order to ensure that both their children and the population generally have maximum protection against the diseases concerned. General Practitioners are aware of the contraindications to the recommended childhood immunisations and parents should discuss any concerns they may have with their General Practitioner before making a decision about their child´s immunisation.

Lastly, may I again thank the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, and particularly the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, for their work on the revised Immunisation Guidelines for Ireland and I look forward to your continued work with my Department.