Measles vaccination rates in UK recover after 14 years

Dr Harish Madhava

Editorial Board

December 7th, 2012

Dr Harish Madhava
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‘Good news: more than nine out of ten parents in the UK now choose to have their children vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR).’

Measles-vaccination-rates-in-UK-recover-after-14-yearsHowever, this recovery just puts efforts to eliminate measles back where they were before the dramatic decline which began in the late 1990s.

The UK was ground zero for one of the most damaging vaccine scares in history: an epidemic of fear that the MMR vaccine was linked in some way to autism. The scare was sparked by a small and thoroughly debunked study by Andrew Wakefield, a medical doctor branded as “dishonest and irresponsible” by his peers.

14 years later, vaccination rates have recovered in the UK, with 91% of children now vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella. This is the highest rate of MMR uptake since the publication of Wakefield’s paper in The Lancet in 1998. The paper has since been withdrawn by the journal with an admission that its central thesis was “utterly false”.

Good, but not enough

At its lowest – in 2003/2004 – just 80% of children were being vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella. This national average disguises an even worse picture in several areas where it was significantly lower. While this means that a strong majority of parents were still having their children vaccinated, it was not enough.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that 95% of children are vaccinated against measles in order to protect everyone through herd immunity. This is particularly important for the minority of children who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons, such as children with immune system problems or who are suffering from cancer.

Even the MMR uptake rates of 91% reported by UK authorities are thought to be too low to protect the whole community. The latest figures are welcome but mean that health authorities are back where they started in the mid-1990s when immunisation rates were also below the target.

There is other encouraging news though. Uptake of vaccines generally appears to be rising. Uptake of the five-in-one vaccine (which can protect against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio and Hib) is also up to 94.7%.

Perhaps public confidence in vaccines is on the up in the UK and we can hope that this positive trend, like the initial health scare, will spread. Alas, tens of thousands of unimmunised children have contracted measles in Europe in recent years which is likely to have ‘helped’ remind people of the need and value of immunisation campaigns.

Read more:

Vaccines do not cause autism

Measles: Battling complacency in Europe

Autism: A mother’s story

Why can’t Europe beat rubella?