Public health experts have called for more action to boost uptake of vaccinations, after it was revealed more than half a million children in the UK missed out on measles jabs in recent years.
New findings from Unicef show 527,000 children in the UK did not receive the first dose of the MMR measles vaccine between 2010 and 2017.
“We cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to immunisation”
This means the UK had the third highest number of children not vaccinated for measles out of all high income countries with only France and the US doing worse.
The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) said the figures showed the UK could not afford to be complacent when it came to immunisation.
Earlier this year, a report by the RSPH highlighted the important role of midwives, health visitors and school nurses in promoting vaccination to parents.
Its research found doctors and nurses were among the most trusted sources of information when it came to immunisation.
More recently a survey of parents by Public Health England found 93% of parents saw nurses and other healthcare workers as the most trusted source of advice.
- Nurses among most trusted source of vaccine information
- Nursing staff cited as key to convincing parents on vaccination
Yet there is ongoing concern about the way misleading messages and myths are being spread on social media.
The RSPH found two in five – 41% – parents had been exposed to negative messages about vaccines on social media. However, that increased to around half for parents with children aged under five.
Meanwhile, health professionals said they had witnessed the influence of the media on the uptake of vaccinations especially the MMR vaccine, which was controversially linked to autism in a now discredited research published more than 20 years ago.
In response to the Unicef figures, the RSPH called for stronger action to tackle so-called “fake news” about vaccination.
“Even small drops in vaccine uptake can have a disastrous effect”
RSPH chief executive Shirley Cramer said that, overall, the UK had a “world-leading vaccination programme”.
“But the findings of this report hammer home once again that we cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to immunisation,” she said.
She again highlighted the important role of health professionals in providing accurate information and dealing with concerns.
“A positive finding from our recent report was that the public’s trust in our doctors and nurses is as high as ever,” she said.
“This puts health professionals in a great position to speak loud and proud about the safety and value of vaccines, and dispel any misplaced fears that parents might have,” she added.
However, she went on to stress that “talking positively about vaccines alone is not enough”.
“We also need a government campaign that takes seriously the proliferation of damaging anti-vaccination messages on social media,” she said.
Earlier this month, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office announced plans for a new regulator for social media to prevent online harms.
The RSPH said it believed this new body should play a role in tackling damaging anti-vaccination messages.
“We need to vaccinate every child in rich and poor countries alike”
The Unicef analysis estimates 169 million children worldwide missed out on their first dose of measles vaccine between 2010 and 2017 – 21.1 million children per year on average.
It warned that “widening pockets of unvaccinated children have created a pathway to the measles outbreaks hitting several countries around the world today”.
An estimated 110,000 people – most of them children – died from measles in 2017 – up 22% on the year before.
The British Medical Association described the figures as “incredibly concerning”.
“Even small drops in vaccine uptake can have a disastrous effect, substantially increasing the risk of harmful disease outbreaks,” said BMA board of science chair Professor Dame Parveen Kumar.
She said improving access to vaccination appointments was also important when it came to increasing uptake.
“For this to happen, there needs to be sufficient funding to deliver fully-resourced services, be that in general practice, the community or through local authorities,” she noted.
She also highlighted the need to tackle “misinformation”. “Parents and carers need support to make informed choices, but if misinformation – be this via targeted campaigns or through inaccurate reporting – is a deterrent this must be stopped,” she said.
She added: “We need vastly improved awareness campaigns, publicising the benefits of vaccination and working towards removing apathy and indecision.”
Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore said efforts to prevent the spread of measles required action across the globe.
“If we are serious about averting the spread of this dangerous but preventable disease, we need to vaccinate every child in rich and poor countries alike,” she said.
The World Health Organization recommends a threshold of 95% immunisation to achieve so-called “herd immunity”.
The latest data shows that in high income countries like the UK coverage for the first dose of measles vaccine is 94% but for the second dose that drops to 91%.
“It is critical not only to increase coverage but also to sustain vaccination rates at the right doses to create an umbrella of immunity for everyone,” said Ms Fore.