Experts call for compulsory measles vaccinations in UK before children can start school

Experts have urged the UK to introduce compulsory vaccinations for children before they go to school. (Picture: Getty)

The UK is facing calls for measles vaccinations to be compulsory before children can start school.

A team of experts has warned that current policies on vaccines aren’t enough to keep the disease at what is known as elimination status and control rising numbers of cases.

Researchers from the Bruno Kessler Foundation and Bocconi University in Italy analysed current vaccination trends in countries including the UK, Ireland, Australia, Italy and the US.

They found that in order to keep the percentage of the population susceptible to catching measles under 7.5% by 2050 - the level at which the disease is regarded as eliminated - further action is needed.

Either far more people need to be vaccinated or a schools policy should be brought in, they said in the study, which is published in the journal BMC Medicine.

Researchers say current UK policies won't keep measles at elimination status (Picture: Getty)

Asked whether unvaccinated children should be banned from schools, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said he "wouldn't rule out anything".

But British experts have voiced concerns that compulsory vaccines would alienate parents.

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The Italian researchers’ study found an estimated 3.7% of the UK population across all ages remained susceptible to measles in 2018 and is expected to rise by more than 50% by 2050 if current vaccination policies remain the same.

"Our results suggest that most of the countries would strongly benefit from the introduction of compulsory vaccination at school entry in addition to current routine immunisation programmes,” they said.

Co-author Dr Stefano Merler added: "In particular, we found that this strategy would allow the UK, Ireland and the US to reach stable herd immunity levels in the next decades, which means that a sufficiently high proportion of individuals are immune to the disease to avoid future outbreaks.

"To be effective, mandatory vaccination at school entry would need to cover more than 40% of the population."

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

The issue of vaccines remains controversial, with anti-vaccination groups blamed for some parents not vaccinating their children with the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR).

A recent YouGov poll for Yahoo UK found that one in five Britons think that vaccines have harmful effects that the public aren’t being told about.

The Times reports that 250,000 teenagers and young adults were not given the MMR vaccine following the scare about the jab, while a further 365,000 children under 14 have not been inoculated.

Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, has said "vaccine rejection is a serious and growing public health timebomb", and "social media firms should have a zero-tolerance approach towards" dangerous and inaccurate scare stories.

Children need two doses of the vaccine for protection, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommending 95% coverage to achieve herd immunity to stop the disease spreading.

Anti-vaccination groups have been blamed for the drop in numbers of people getting their children vaccinated (Picture: PA)

In 2016 and 2017, uptake of the first dose of the MMR vaccine in five-year-olds in the UK exceeded 95%.

But uptake of the second dose of MMR in five-year-old children is 88% - well below the 95% WHO target.

In response to the new study, Dr David Elliman, consultant in community child health at Great Ormond Street Hospital, and from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said a policy of compulsory vaccination lacks evidence for the UK.

He said: "Only about 1% to 2% of UK parents refuse all immunisations. A larger proportion may have concerns that are readily addressed by healthcare professionals, while a significant number still have problems accessing appropriate family-friendly services.

"Introducing compulsory vaccination in this country might reduce the very high level of trust that people have in the NHS and prove counterproductive. It could even result in lower levels of vaccination.

"Before we even consider going down this route, we should ensure that we have efficient appointments systems and reminders and adequate numbers of well-trained staff, with time to talk to parents in family-friendly clinics.

"Compulsion may work in some countries, but it is not for us."

Sonia Saxena, professor of primary care at Imperial College London, said: "Making vaccination mandatory might have unintended consequences.

"It risks disenfranchising parents and carers, as well as risking a rise in unvaccinated children being excluded from school - which could carry stigma for children whose parents do not comply.

"More effective approaches would include reminding parents and providers of upcoming and overdue immunisations, as well as educating and providing feedback to the doctors, nurses and healthcare staff providing vaccinations."