It is certainly embarrassing that Scotland's largest ever immunisation programme has been halted at the 11th hour but, worse than that, the way the affair has been handled shows, at best, a lack of transparency to parents about the contents of the flu vaccine and, at worst, a lack of sensitivity on the issue of faith and religious belief.

 

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The programme, which was launched by First Minister Alex Salmond, is ambitious. Every two and three-year-old child in Scotland is to be given the flu vaccine - which amounts to around 120,000 children - as well as another 100,000 primary pupils in pilot areas. It is a programme no-one would question, particularly as it is young children and those over 65 who are most vulnerable to flu.

However, the problem with the vaccination programme is that no explicit mention was made to the parents of the children involved that the nasal vaccine contained traces of pork gelatine - a substance which is beyond the pale for Muslims as well others, including Jews and vegetarians.

It is surprising that this should been allowed to happen, particularly in Glasgow, where the vast majority of Scotland's Muslim population live. Worse, this episode comes only a couple of weeks after a similar vaccination programme ran into trouble in Leicestershire for exactly the same reason. Health officials there apologised for not informing parents their vaccine included pork gelatine. The head teacher of one school, which is attended by Muslim pupils, said it showed a lack of sensitivity.

As the final preparations were being made to launch the Scottish pilot, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC) should surely have been aware of what was happening in Leicestershire. NHSGGC's response has been to cite a meeting of Islamic scholars in Kuwait 12 years ago which ruled that pork gelatine was permissible in medicines and vaccines and did not breach religious law.

That may be so, but a more judicious approach from the health board would have been to inform parents, including Muslim parents, to allow them to make the choice for themselves.

The information was included in the small print on the board's website but, by not contacting parents directly and telling them what was in the vaccine, NHSGGC appeared to make a decision on what is, and what is not, appropriate for Muslim children without consultation. That suggests a lack of sensitivity to religious groups.

The solution the board has now found is that parents can request an alternative gelatine-free vaccination - which raises the question: why was this option not offered in the first place?

Whatever the answer, the vaccination programme now at least has a chance to restart with a clean slate. Most parents will want their children to be vaccinated against flu, but now they can also make an informed decision about which vaccination they receive. It is an option they should have been offered from the start.