Parents urged to get children vaccinated after ‘worrying’ drop in jab uptake

Parents are being urged to get their children vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) after a “worrying” drop in the uptake of key vaccines.

Figures from NHS England and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) show 92.5% of children had had the first dose of the MMR jab at five years old by 2022/23, the lowest since 2010/11.

Five-year-olds who had had the second jab by 2022/23 was at 84.5%, also the lowest level since 2010/11.

Children in England with MMR vaccine by fifth birthday
(PA Graphics)

It comes as vaccination programmes across England failed to meet the uptake recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the year 2022/23.

WHO recommends that, nationally, at least 95% of children have jabs for diseases that can be stopped by vaccines, in order to prevent outbreaks.

However, NHS data showed no routine vaccine programme met the threshold during the 12-month period.

Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam, consultant medical epidemiologist at UKHSA, said the downward trend is a “serious concern”.

“The diseases that these vaccines protect against, such as measles, polio and meningitis, can be life-changing and even deadly.

“No parent wants this for their child especially when these diseases are easily preventable. Please don’t put this off, check now that your children are fully up to date with all their vaccines due. Check your child’s red book and get in touch with your GP surgery if you are not sure.”

In the UK, babies are offered immunisation against meningitis B and rotavirus at eight weeks old, and are also given the “6-in-1” jab, which helps fight polio, tetanus, whooping cough, diphtheria, hepatitis B and haemophilus influenzae type b – a bacteria that can cause life-threatening infections.

The doses are topped up at 12 weeks and 16 weeks.

One-year-olds should receive the first dose of the MMR jab, along with the Hib/MenC vaccine, which protects against haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) and meningitis C. They are also offered the second dose of the pneumococcal vaccine and further protection against meningitis B.

The second dose of the MMR is offered at three years and four months.

In 2022/23, 91.8% of babies in England had the 6-in-1 vaccine by their first birthday, with 93.7% up to date with the pneumococcal vaccine and 91% protected against meningitis B.

Only 88.7% were vaccinated against rotavirus, which can cause diarrhoea in infants.

The figures also reveal sharp differences in vaccine coverage across local areas of England.

Sunderland saw the highest percentage of children who had received the 6-in-1 jab by their first birthday in 2022/23, at 97.6%, followed by the East Riding of Yorkshire (97.3%) and South Tyneside (96.9%).

By contrast, just 67.8% of children had received it in the London boroughs of Hackney & City of London, with the next lowest percentages for Kensington & Chelsea (82.4%) and Enfield (83.1%), also in the capital.

The East Riding of Yorkshire topped the list for the highest proportion of children who had received both doses of the MMR vaccine by their fifth birthday (94.4%), followed by County Durham (94.0%) and Cumbria (93.5%).

Hackney & City of London again had the lowest take-up, at just 56.3%, followed by the London boroughs of Camden (63.6%) and Enfield (64.8%).

London recorded the lowest percentage of any region for children with both doses of the MMR vaccine by the age of five (74.0%), while north-east England had the highest (90.4%).

Dr Doug Brown, chief executive of the British Society for Immunology, said England “continues to miss key targets”.

He added: “It is particularly worrying that today’s statistics show that only 84.5% of children receive the second MMR vaccine dose by age five – well below the 95% level recommended by the WHO.

“Measles is one of the world’s most contagious diseases and cases are currently on the rise in England.

“We must ensure that vaccination rates improve to stop the spread of measles and give our communities the best possible protection available against this serious illness.”

Earlier this month, NHS England warned that more than 32,000 children in London alone are at risk of catching measles due to the decline in vaccination rates.

Dr Brown added: “Vaccines are the safest and most effective method to protect our children against disease.

“In the past year, 12 out of the 14 childhood vaccinations have seen their uptake decrease, putting our communities at higher risk of infection and illness.

“Lower levels of vaccination mean that harmful diseases can spread, infecting people who have not been vaccinated, including vulnerable individuals who are unable to have vaccinations such as young babies, people with compromised immune systems or people with cancer.”

Steve Russell, NHS director of vaccinations and screening, said: “The NHS continues to encourage and support parents and carers to ensure their children are up to date with their vaccinations to protect them against becoming seriously unwell from infectious diseases.

“While most children are up to date with their vaccinations, there is more to do, and the NHS is running an MMR catch-up campaign to support more families in coming forward, with targeted outreach work for those identified as at high risk and communities with the lowest uptake.

“Diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella can make children seriously ill, but they are preventable, and millions of vaccination doses are given every year to offer the best protection – so please check your child is up to date with their vaccines and contact your GP surgery to catch up with any missed doses as soon as possible.”

A DHSC spokesperson said: “It is vital that routine childhood vaccinations are up to date as this remains one of our best defences for public health.

“The UK has a world-leading offer and we have run multiple catch-up campaigns to improve coverage – including a national catch-up campaign for MMR and London-specific campaigns for MMR and polio.

“We urge parents and carers to check that their children are up to date on their vaccines and if not they should book an appointment to catch up.”

In July, a report by WHO said the number of children globally missing all vaccines – known as “zero-dose children” – improved in 2022, dropping to 14.3 million from 18.1 million in 2021.

Pre-pandemic levels were 12.9 million.

The British Society for Immunology has called for “urgent action” from the UK Government, including the publication of a vaccine strategy.

“This publication should be a comprehensive strategy and a springboard to strengthen the roles of local immunisation co-ordinators, ensure services are accessible, widen community outreach and increase both investment in public health campaigns as well as engagement with parents to answer their questions on vaccines,” Dr Brown said.