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Vaccines: a good buy for health and science

12 Oct 2015

Peter Openshaw, President of the British Society for Immunology, on improving the UK’s immunisation programmes

When the Treasury published its guidance on the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review in July in a document entitled A country that lives within its means their aims were immediately clear: tight fiscal discipline. In other words, major reductions in the budgets of many central government departments.

Some budgets have been protected, and this includes health. The threat is therefore focussed on unprotected budgets – which includes money that is distributed to life sciences research through the Research Councils. Any reduction in science spending would be disastrous not just for this generation of scientists but for those yet to come as many, including CaSE, have argued so eloquently. The ultimate impact on the UK’s prosperity is a genuine worry since spending on research and education have been shown to pay off handsomely.

However, at the British Society for Immunology we are particularly concerned about another issue: vaccines. These medical wonders have made an immeasurable contribution to the health of our nation and the UK has a long and proud history in supporting their development and production. This started with Jenner in 1796 and leads right up to the present day. Just recently for example we have seen the implementation of a new immunisation programme, the first of its kind in the world, to vaccinate infants against meningitis B, a dangerous and devastating infectious disease. These measures are among the most cost-effective interventions we have to improve public health and are rightfully labelled public health’s ‘best buy’.

The UK is a world leader in the way it develops, expands, and improves its immunisation programmes. Any threat to our excellent current programmes and the introduction of new vaccine technologies must be resisted. This summer the Government announced cuts to the public health budget of £200m, and more is expected from the Spending Review. Although vaccination schedules are delivered by the NHS (a protected budget), the delivery of these programmes relies on invaluable support from public health funds which are vulnerable to spending cuts.

This support includes the procurement and distribution of vaccines, providing expert advice and clinical guidance to shape future programmes, and performing the analysis and surveillance that is so important to the evaluation of existing and future schemes, and indeed in assessing any putative links between vaccination and adverse events.

Moreover, public health bodies have responsibility for delivering national communications, including information leaflets, factsheets, and other patient resources. This is a critical task which assumes even greater importance at a time when the UK is failing to reach the minimum World Health Organisation designated targets for vaccination coverage across a number of routine immunisation schedules, as the latest data published by the Government showed last month.

We have expressed these concerns in a letter to the Chancellor, submitted to the Treasury, and with a shorter version published in The Times. Our message is clear: failure to safeguard and build upon the existing platform, through protection of public health spending but also commitment to the life sciences budget, seriously compromises our ability to protect the public from infectious disease.

It would be easy to characterise the spending review as a simple stock-check of public expenses, an opportunity for the Treasury to reign in departmental spending as a means of achieving further fiscal consolidation. In reality, it’s much more important. By defining central budgets for the next five years the Government is sending out a strong message as to where its political priorities lie.

The BSI believes that preserving the health of the nation and building upon our world-leading immunisation programmes should be foremost amongst these priorities. We hope that the Government takes heed of these concerns and uses this spending review as an opportunity to make a bold statement on its commitment to science, public health, and immunisation when the outcome of the review is announced in November.

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