Measles: Half a million UK children unvaccinated amid fears of 'public health timebomb'

Henry Bodkin
- PA

More than half a million British children are unvaccinated against measles, new figures show, as the head of NHS England challenged social media giants to block “grossly irresponsible” anti-vax propaganda

Sites such as Instagram and YouTube should adopt “zero tolerance” regimes, Simon Stevens said as Unicef data revealed the UK to be among the worst high-income countries for uptake of the jab.

The new data, which tallies children left unvaccinated between 2010 and 2017, follows a steep rise in measles cases in England last year.

The hike is thought to be a direct result of the drop in vaccinations that followed the publication of fraudulent research linking the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) jab to autism by the disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield in 1998.

Vaccination coverage among children reaching their second birthday in England is now 91 per cent, with just 87 per cent receiving the second dose by their fifth birthday.

This falls below the 95 per cent coverage experts believe is necessary to achieve “herd-immunity”, where outbreaks are effectively unable to spread.

Symptoms of measles can be sore, red eyes, high temperature and spots on the inside of the cheeks, while serious complications involve pneumonia, fits and diarrhoea.

Mr Stevens described vaccine rejection as a “serious and growing public health timebomb”.

“With measles cases almost quadrupled in England in just one year, it is grossly irresponsible for anybody to spread scare stories about vaccines, and social media firms should have a zero tolerance approach towards this dangerous content,” he said.

Coverage for MMR at two years decreased in 2017-18 for the fourth year in a row, the lowest it has been since 2011-12, which marked the high point of the recovery from the Wakefield scare.

Anti-vax conspiracies have gained traction again in recent years, however, fuelled by social media and endorsement from celebrities such as Jim Carrey and Robert de Niro.

The new Unicef research places Britain third worst among 10 high-income countries for the number of children left unvaccinated, estimated to be 527,000.

Only in the US, where approximately 2,593,000 youngsters are not vaccinated, and France which has 608,000, is the situation worse.

In 2017 there were 259 measles cases in England, rising to 966 in 2018.

MMR take-up has fallen below 'herd immunity' levels in the UK Credit: PA

Meanwhile in the first three months of 2019, more than 110,000 measles cases were reported worldwide, up almost 300 per cent on the same period the year before.

The United States recorded 695 cases of measles in 2019, the most of any year since the disease was declared eliminated in 2000, health authorities said on Wednesday.

An estimated 110,000 people, most of them children, died from measles in 2017 globally, a 22 per cent rise on the previous year.

Professor Arne Akbar, President of the British Society for Immunology, said: “Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that can lead to very serious complications, including death.

“Because the measles virus spreads so easily between individuals, it’s vital that a high percentage of the population is vaccinated to block this spread.

“The World Health Organisation state we need 95 per cent coverage.”

Public Health England data shows the proportion of children in England receiving the MMR vaccine by the age of two fell to around 80 per cent in 2003.

Professor Akbar said a significant proportion of measles cases last year were in teenagers and young adults who were not vaccinated when younger.

“If you or your child has missed out on the benefits of vaccination, it’s not too late to get immunised,” he said. “Don’t regret it by waiting to catch one of these diseases.”

Globally, 85 per cent of children received their first dose in 2017 and 67% got the second dose.

Unicef said the rates reflected "lack of access, poor health systems, complacency, and in some cases fear or scepticism about vaccines".

Andrew Wakefield's fraudulent Lancet paper sparked a worldwide scare Credit: Paul Grover

Mary Ramsay, Public Health England's head of immunisations, said: "The UK achieved WHO measles elimination status in 2017, so the overall risk of measles to the UK population is low.

"However, due to ongoing measles outbreaks in Europe, we will continue to see cases, particularly in unimmunised individuals.

"This could lead to some spread in communities with low MMR coverage and in age groups with very close mixing.

"Measles can be extremely serious, so make sure you and your family are protected."