Primary schools on measles alert as vaccination rates plummet

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

One in 10 children are starting school at risk of measles due to plummeting MMR vaccination rates – with evidence showing that many parents simply do not understand the risks measles can pose.

Coverage for the two doses of the MMR vaccine in five-year-olds in England is currently 85.5 per cent, well below the 95 per cent that is recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in order to stop measles from spreading.

Coverage of the first dose for two-year-olds has also dropped to 88.6 per cent. It means that more than one in 10 children are not fully protected and at risk of catching measles.

Measles is highly contagious and can lead to complications such as ear infections, pneumonia, and inflammation of the brain which require hospitalisation and on rare occasions can lead to long-term disability or death.

Children are offered two doses of the MMR vaccine by their registered GP surgery, the first when they turn one and the second at around three years and four months, before they start nursery or school.

It is thought that Covid-19 lockdowns have prevented some parents from attending GP surgeries to take up vaccinations. However, this does not change the fact that MMR vaccination rates have been declining for some time now.

In 2017, the UK was given measles elimination status by the WHO, based on data from 2014 to 2016. However, it promptly lost this status in 2018 when there was a marked increase in the number of cases – with 991 confirmed cases in England and Wales compared with 284 cases in 2017.

Likewise, the Oxford Vaccine Group reports that the numbers of measles cases are currently high in several European countries. In Europe in 2018, there were 82,500 measles cases, more than three times as many as in 2017 and 15 times as many as in 2016.

New research commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care and the UK Health Security Agency finds that many parents are ignorant of the risks they are taking.

Polling of 2,000 parents of children aged five and under found that half are not aware that measles can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia and brain inflammation and only 38 per cent realise that measles can be fatal.

Two doses of the MMR vaccine give 99 per cent protection against both measles and rubella and offer 88 per cent protection against mumps. Since the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1968, the Oxford Vaccine Group estimates that 20 million measles cases and 4,500 deaths have been prevented in the UK.

However, despite this, a third of parents in the poll who expressed concern about the MMR vaccine said it is because they are worried about MMR side effects.

The NHS and the UK Health Security Agency have now launched a joint appeal to parents to get their young children vaccinated.

Dr Vanessa Saliba, consultant epidemiologist at the UK Health Security Agency, said: “The MMR vaccine offers the best protection from measles, mumps and rubella, which is why we’re calling on parents and carers to make sure their children are up to date with their two doses.

“Even a small drop in vaccine coverage can have a big impact on population immunity levels and lead to outbreaks. I would urge parents to check if their children are up to date with their MMR vaccines and if not to get them booked in as soon as they are able. It’s never too late to catch up.”

Parents who are unsure if their child is up-to-date with all their routine vaccinations should check their child’s Red Book (personal child health record) in the first instance and then contact their GP. The NHS has an information webpage tackling FAQs surrounding the MMR vaccine.

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