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Public confidence in mass vaccination campaigns is crucial

Despite the banner headlines this morning, there are still more questions than answers about the tragic death of 14-year-old Natalie Morton.

By Steve Nowottny

Despite the banner headlines this morning, there are still more questions than answers about the tragic death of 14-year-old Natalie Morton.

Natalie, a pupil at the Blue Coat Church of England School in Coventry, died in hospital yesterday shortly after being given a cervical cancer jab as part of the Government's HPV vaccination problem.

Other than that, though, details are sketchy. We don't know if the teenager died after an extreme, and extremely rare, reaction to the standard vaccine – or if there was something wrong with the batch of vaccine she was given. We don't know why Natalie died.

We don't even, as local public health director Dr Caron Grainger said yesterday, yet know if there was definitively a link between her death and the vaccine at all.

The natural inclination of GPs, as with other healthcare professionals, may be to play down the wider significance of yesterday's incident, very sad though it is.

After all, as the BBC points out, while the MHRA has received 4,657 reports of suspected reactions to Cervarix, this is against a total of more than 1.4 million doses. ‘The risk of severe, potentially life-threatening reactions is estimated at no more than one per million doses of vaccine,' we're told.

But the worry is, this misses the point. If the MMR controversy taught us anything, it's that mass vaccination campaigns, more than any other public health intervention, are hugely dependant upon public confidence.

Until now, controversy over the HPV jab had been somewhat muted, as much because of the wall-to-wall coverage of another young woman's death – Jade Goody – as because of NHS adverts or renewed public confidence in the benefits of vaccination.

Now, as GPs prepare to launch an unprecedented mass vaccination campaign of a very different type, for swine flu, the stakes could not be higher. Public confidence is critical – and the next few days could be crucial.

By Steve Nowottny

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