Lib Dem doctor slams Tory nurse’s swine flu blog

May 7, 2009 at 5:25 pm 2 comments

by Tony Grew

The Health Secretary’s latest statement to the Commons on swine flu saw a doctor attack a nurse’s blog and a query on behalf of people allergic to eggs.

Liberal Democrat Evan Harris, a medical doctor, asked Alan Johnson “about the importance of those making public statements sticking to a clear consensus expert view.”

He went to criticise what “one honourable Member has said on her blog, in relation to schools and nurseries closing.”

That member is Nadine Dorries, a Tory MP and former nurse and later a director of BUPA, who is a well-regarded member of the blogosphere.

Dr Harris quoted Ms Dorries entry on the government’s reaction to swine flu: “It is madness. The Minister for public health should stop schools from closing. Far better everyone catches the virus now, and builds up their own anti-bodies whilst it’s still relatively weak, and presents as nothing worse than a cold.”

“She goes on to suggest that children will be better off in the long run if they catch the virus now. She does say:

“‘Viruses are much cleverer than we are.”

“Apart from the obvious problem of the threat to the immuno-compromised and the frail of the virus becoming widespread, there is also a danger of viral reassortment within the human population if it goes wide.

“Will the Secretary of State give his view on whether it is wise to put out public statements such as that one?”

Alan Johnson said he was “glad that the hon. Gentlema raised that matter; I did see it.

“I will give not my view, but that of the experts, including the chief medical officer—it is that such advice is totally irresponsible.

“We do not yet know enough about this virus; it is novel and we do not know its characteristics or how it mutates.

“It would be utter madness to tell people that their best bet is to get this virus and build up some immunity.

“Immunity from what? If it mutates, that will be an immunity from a previous phase.

“I have discussed this idea—it seems to be a piece of cracker-barrel philosophy that is going around—with all the clinicians and they say, without any hesitation, that it is totally irresponsible.

“I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me an opportunity to put that on the record.”

Earlier Mr Johnson had told the House about the spread of swine flu worldwide.

“At present, there are 1,518 confirmed cases across the world, and 29 deaths from swine flu have been confirmed in Mexico and two in the United States.

“The Health Protection Agency will announce this afternoon that there are currently 34 confirmed cases in the UK, but there is not yet evidence of sustained person-to-person transmission—that is to say, people in the community who have no obvious link with each other catching this disease.

“Ten people who are not known to have travelled to Mexico caught the virus in the UK from other infected people who are close contacts.

“We can reasonably expect the number of such cases to increase considerably over the coming weeks.

“Of the UK cases, 13 are children. Following expert assessment, four schools closed on the advice of local health protection officers to contain any potential outbreak.

“A fifth school and a linked nursery decided to close of their own volition after two pupils at the school were confirmed to have the disease, though they had not been at school when symptomatic.

“I can confirm that one of the two additional cases announced today is a child at that school.

“Although the overall number of cases in the UK is still relatively low, the situation remains serious and could rapidly escalate. Our current approach is one of containment while preparing for a further phase when that is no longer possible.

“As I announced to the House last week, we have taken steps to increase our already substantial stocks of antivirals to enable us to cover 80 per cent. of the population, although I stress again that we do not expect anywhere near those numbers to be affected.

“We are also increasing our stockpiles of antibiotics, which are essential for treating any potential complications caused by swine flu, so that we have enough to cover 30 per cent. of the population by September.

“We have ordered an additional 227 million surgical face masks and 34 million respirators, which, if used properly, can prevent transmission to NHS staff who are in close and frequent contact with patients.”

Stephen O’Brien, the Shadow Minister for Health, said there were “grounds for optimism.”

“The severity and spread of the virus are much less than we might have feared,” he said.

“It is therefore a good moment to express our appreciation of the work of NHS staff, and staff in the Health Protection Agency, the pathology services and the Department on achieving such containment.”

Mr O’Brien asked why some schools are closing and others are “simply restricting year groups coming into school,” and asked for clarification.

“Can the Secretary of State outline in what circumstances the school exam timetables and arrangements would need to be changed?

“Would it be fair, either to pupils forced to stay at home or to those still attending school, to use coursework in place of an exam in order to test and grade students—reports have suggested such an approach—rather than use, for instance, the retake system?”

Mr Johnson said that the Health Protection Agency and the health protection unit in the area should be the authoritative voice on whether or not a school needs to close.

“The decision depends on whether the pupils who have the symptoms have mixed in the same eating area as other pupils and whether they have the same restaurant facilities as other pupils—a number of measures need to be taken into account.

“The HPA’s advice is that this virus has an incubation period of seven days and that has therefore driven our approach on seven days.

“On the question of exams, which is tremendously worrying for pupils and parents, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the statement that Ofqual made on 1 May and the subsequent information that came from the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

“There has been a practised approach to this—most recently, it was used successfully in my constituency after the floods in Hull to deal with the problems—so it is not as if we are in uncharted territory.

“However, it is important that the information reaches parents and pupils as quickly as possible.”

Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay said he was “troubled” by patient confidentiality for those infected.

“Once the storm broke, people had their photographs put in the newspapers,” he said.

“Vulnerable people facing a time of great crisis were harassed by journalists to produce photos, or their loved ones were asked, and so forth.

“Such people need some protection, and surely NHS staff need to be reminded of the law under the Data Protection Act 1998.”

His Labour colleague Adrian Bailey expressed concern about “unnecessary fears” perpetrated by reports of a swine flu case.

Alan Johnson said the authorities do not publicise information on a case until the parents and those close to the person have been informed.

“At the moment, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), is seeking to advise Members of Parliament on both sides of the House of any outbreak in their constituency, but that might be difficult to maintain as the system goes ahead.

“At the moment, however, we are trying to ensure that there is no publicity until the parents have been informed, and we try to inform the local constituency MP before the information is made public as well. We will do our very best to keep to that procedure for as long as possible.”

Kerry McCarthy, Labour MP for Bristol East, had a complex question for the Secretary of State.

“I apologise in advance for asking a slightly obscure question, but I understand that the vaccine that is being worked on involves the use of eggshells, as does the current flu vaccine,” she said.

“That means that it is not suitable for people who are allergic to eggs.

“Some people are so allergic to eggs that they cannot even touch the outside of the shell without breaking out in a reaction.

“Is there any way of getting around this problem so that we can develop a flu vaccine that is suitable for everybody?”

Alan Johnson admitted that the question had gone “well past the limits of my knowledge on these issues.”

“She is quite right that eggs are used to grow the vaccine—[Interruption.] “Eggs are eggs” as has been said.

“I have not heard the issue concerning people who are allergic to eggs; I will look into it and perhaps write to her separately.”


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