Government to tackle anti-vaccination message

It is no accident that measles is making a “comeback” across the developed world following two decades of debate regarding entirely debunked links between autism and the MMR vaccine.

In fact, earlier this year it was revealed that the same Russian social-media trolls who sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election may also have played a part in the outbreak of measles in Europe last year by actively spreading the “anti-vaxxer” message across the continent, contributing to the deaths of 72 people and contributing to a further 82,000 measles infections.

The UK has also been affected, despite being declared measles-free as recently as 2017. According to UNICEF, between 2010 and 2017 more than 500,000 children in the Britain did not receive their recommended measles vaccine, while over the last four years, the number of children who receive the MMR jab by their fifth birthday in England has dropped to 87.2%; well below the 95% uptake called for by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This may explain why there have been more confirmed cases of measles in Greater Manchester so far in 2019 (47 at the time of writing) than in the previous two years combined.

Health Secretary Mr Hancock recently told the BBC, “Failure to vaccinate when there isn’t a good reason is wrong. These people who campaign against vaccinations are campaigning against science – the science is settled.”

As a result, Hancock has said that he will look at “all options” to raise vaccination levels. “I don’t want to have to reach the point of compulsory vaccination,” he said. “And I don’t think we are near there, but I will rule nothing out.”

Perhaps the government might take its lead from Germany, where it was recently announced that parents who fail to vaccinate their children could face fines of up to €2,500 (£2,130).

The proposed German law, which is due to come into effect on 1 March 2022, would make measles vaccination compulsory for all children who attend nurseries and schools.

Education is everything

Given the scale of the problem and the success of the anti-vaccination message, the only option for the government is to educate the public on the safety of vaccines and the threat posed by anti-vaccination campaigners.

It’s clear that improved education needs to be implemented right across the UK. For example, Wales, like England, is failing to reach WHO’s 95% uptake figure.

“Most people do choose to be vaccinated, but a small minority remain unconvinced by the safety and benefits of vaccines,” commented Dr Frank Atherton, Wales’ chief medical officer.

“We need to work with clinicians and other experts to ensure that parents are fully informed of the benefits of vaccination, to ensure maximum uptake of the vaccine and achieve our aim of eradicating preventable diseases.”

Dr Phil White, a vaccine specialist with the British Medical Association’s GP committee in Wales, recently told BBC Wales that the purveyors of misinformation should face criminal prosecution. “We’ve seen this on the internet – it’s quite a problem – a lot of untruths are being told and somebody needs to do something about it,” he said.

More about measles

Measles is a highly infectious virus and passes from person to person via direct contact and coughs and sneezes.

Given the right temperatures, the virus can live on surfaces for several hours, so hygiene and cleanliness are essential during the time of an outbreak.

Symptoms of the virus include a general lethargy, sore eyes, a cough, a rash and fever, which can quickly rise. The vast majority of affected children will feel unwell but make a full recovery within ten days; however, in a minority of cases complications such as infection, seizures, pneumonia and inflammation of the brain may occur and may even occasionally prove fatal.

WHO estimates that, between 2000 and 2017, the measles vaccine saved around 20 million lives worldwide.

For more information on vaccinations and the misguided beliefs that cause parents to question their safety, you can read our page on whooping cough vaccinations.