Author takes a jab at the thorny subject of vaccinations

PUBLISHED: 16:33 06 September 2007 | UPDATED: 14:37 07 September 2010

Vaccinations may not appear the most popular of subjects for a book but this one is both informative and a rattling good read, writes Amanda Blinkhorn Richard Halvorsen has set himself an impossible task - to investigate and set out his reservations ab

Vaccinations may not appear the most popular of subjects for a book but this one is both informative and a rattling good read, writes Amanda Blinkhorn

Richard Halvorsen has set himself an impossible task - to investigate and set out his reservations about mass childhood immunisation and then leave us to make up our own minds about whether or not to vaccinate our children.

The result, The Truth About Vaccines, is a rattling good read, fascinating as a history of childhood diseases and the far from smooth journey towards universal childhood vaccines.

Dr Halvorsen is an engaging and entertaining writer and the book is at its best when charting the rise and fall of childhood disease. Where I began to fall out with him is when he tries to enlighten me with science. I stopped studying chemistry at

A-Level so, much as I would love to tussle with him over his research findings, or even swallow them whole, I'm just not qualified to do so.

So that's where we part company - he says vaccines have dangerous levels of mercury in them, government scientists say they don't. He believes we haven't done enough research to ensure the safety of the MMR vaccine, government scientists and researchers worldwide say they have.

He says a retrospective trial is never going to be accurate enough, what we need is to set up one now and track children in the future - but that would mean deliberately depriving a blind sample of newborn babies of a possibly life-saving vaccination. See what I mean? Vaccination is a minefield - emotive, political, and the perfect stomping ground for conspiracy theorists, campaigners and armchair experts everywhere.

He is not, as he says, anti-vaccination, but he believes we are overdoing things a tad. He gives a brilliant account of vaccination successes and cock-ups of the past and is the first to give credit where he believes it is due - as with the rubella campaign. He also gives a clear and convincing explanation as to why prevention is not always better than a cure unless you can guarantee 100 per cent take up and efficiency. For example, rubella in itself is not a serious disease. It's only serious if you contract it when pregnant as it can cause deformities in the baby.

Therefore the best tactic is not to try, and inevitably fail, to wipe out a fairly harmless disease with mass childhood vaccinations because all that will do is push the age of infection upwards (childhood vaccinations mean fewer children catch it and develop immunity naturally, more are likely to drop through the net and get it when they are older, and therefore more likely to catch it during pregnancy).

Therefore it's better to keep the disease going, to give children a chance to catch it early and develop their own immunity, but vaccinate girls at the age of 12 just to be safe. Not so much belt and braces as check your zip works before you leave the house.

The book is by no means a hysterical anti vaccination rant - he is not anti-vaccination he just believes that our current policy is to put it mildly, over-zealous. He was, he says, always taught that vaccinations were a wonderful idea and still believes in many cases they are. But his eyes were opened when he was asked to write about MMR and uncovered, he said, some awkward and unanswered questions.

In essence, he believes there is a small but significant risk of autism for some children, which hasn't been ruled out to his satisfaction. In his opinion, this outweighs what he believes to be the relatively smaller risk of death or permanent damage from contracting measles mumps or rubella. With hindsight, he says, he would not have had his children immunised for MMR.

"I have no axe to grind," he says, all he wants to do is inform us. He lives in Highbury, has a GP practice in Bloomsbury and knows all about and sympathises with the anxieties of the well-read Hampstead parent. And as a GP, he was among the first to offer MMR jabs singly on the NHS and offers the service privately to others.

Asked whether he is cashing in on a scare partly of his own making, he denies it, calmly and with more grace than possibly the question deserves, pointing out that he is still working flat out as an NHS GP and only working privately for two sessions a week.

He concedes that there is a logical flaw in selling a vaccination he has reservations about. But he believes that until there is more research, then he believes, albeit he admits, on instinctive rather than strictly scientific grounds, that single vaccinations are safer than the triple.

He's written a great book - I particularly enjoyed the grim tales of health spin past - especially the alarming recording of a child apparently gasping its last from whooping cough which greeted anxious callers to a government helpline during the whooping cough vaccination scare. Fabulous.

He's opened my eyes, but perhaps because he has thrown everything at it, including the baby's bathwater (hygiene, he believes, is as responsible as anything else for the reduction in childhood epidemics) he hasn't changed my mind. I admit I don't know enough about the science to decide between one medically trained brain and the next. So until I pass those biochemistry exams, I'll carry on running with the herd.

The Truth About Vaccines by Dr Richard Halvorsen is

published by Gibson Square, priced £9.99.

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