Unvaccinated youngsters who missed out on MMR jab ‘could worsen’ measles crisis

Women scratch the upper arm with one hand due to the numerous red pruritus
UK Health Security Agency warned surge of cases in the West Midlands could be set to occur elsewhere - iStockphoto/singjai20

Unvaccinated young adults who missed out on the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) jab over autism fears could worsen the measles crisis, doctors have warned.

Experts said that from 1998 vaccine uptake fell because of “highly publicised but subsequently discredited research suggesting a link with autism”, and that those children whose parents opted against vaccines as a result are now young adults.

Health officials have warned that other cities in Britain are at “very real risk” of the kind of outbreak seen in Birmingham, while others have said it is just a matter of time “before this virus kills”.

Uptake of the MMR jab fell from 91.5 per cent in 1997 to a record low of 79.9 per cent in 2004 for first doses, in the wake of a falsified report by disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield, which wrongly claimed the vaccinations caused children to develop autism.

While this improved up to 2014, the trend has reversed once again in the past decade, falling faster since the pandemic to 84.5 per cent of people fully vaccinated last year, and leaving the country short of the World Health Organisation’s target of 95 per cent.

Prof Helen Bedford, of the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, said “many parents preferred not to have their children vaccinated” after the Wakefield scandal “given the intense media coverage at the time”.

She said it was “too easy to blame anti-vaccine sentiment” which may “play a small part”, but was not the whole story.

“We have also seen a small decline in vaccine uptake year-on-year for the past 10 years,” Prof Bedford said. “These declines in uptake were exacerbated during the pandemic for a variety of reasons with some parents afraid to attend clinics for fear of catching Covid or because they were not clear that routine vaccination services were continuing.”

Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, the Government’s chief vaccine advisor and director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said: “The clock is ticking to get children who have missed doses vaccinated before this virus kills.”

Measles is a highly infectious disease which can lead to lung infections and inflammation of the brain. It can also damage and suppress the immune system, meaning children can be more vulnerable to becoming ill, according to the NHS.

It is likely that the UK loses its measles elimination status as a result of the rising cases, having only just regained it last year, health authorities have admitted.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned that the surge of cases in the West Midlands, where 216 cases have been confirmed and a further 103 are “probable”, could be set to occur elsewhere.

More children have been hospitalised since December in Birmingham alone than people of any age were across the entire NHS in each of the previous three years.

The more than 50 children treated at Birmingham Children’s Hospital in the last seven weeks, surpassed the 37 hospital admissions seen in England in 2022-23, and is triple the 15 seen in 2021-22.

Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of UKHSA, said: “With vaccine uptake in some communities so low, there is now a very real risk of seeing the virus spread in other towns and cities.

“Immediate action is needed to boost MMR uptake across communities where vaccine uptake is low.”

While 79 per cent of West Midlands cases have been detected in Birmingham, officials confirmed there had been cases in at least three-quarters of the region.

Toward the end of last year there were also confirmed outbreaks in Leicester and Yorkshire and Humber.

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