Worrying drop in vaccinations

Laura White
Laura White

Doctors across the South West are getting extremely worried about the drop in the uptake of the MMR vaccine and Public Health England are urging parents to get their children protected with the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Nick Young, Consultant in Communicable Diseases for Public Health England for Devon and Cornwall said: “Measles is a very infectious virus and can spread rapidly among communities such as schools if people have not been immunised.

‘While most people who catch measles will recover completely within a couple of weeks, it’s important to remember measles can be a very serious illness that can leave permanent disabilities and can occasionally kill.”

In 1996 the measles virus was all but eradicated. But in 1998, a report in The Lancet, the medical journal, linked the MMR vaccine to autism. This study was later withdrawn and the Lancet said it should never have been reported.

But by 2012 measles cases were up by 200 in the UK.

In Devon in 2017, cases occurred around the Totnes area where 13 cases of measles and 10 probable cases were reported in one school in the town, Kings Edward VI Community College. This outbreak was confirmed by Public Health England (PHE).

Two cases of measles in children were confirmed in Ashburton with another three suspected cases. A small but increasing number of cases have been linked to top music festivals in the South West.

The World Health Organization have reported that measles cases in Europe had increased from 3,000 to 40,000 cases in under five years with 37 deaths. Last year there were over 1,000 reported cases of measles in the UK.

Deaths world-wide from measles was over 110,000 in 2017. Last week in the USA, Rockland County north of New York reported an outbreak of measles and said children under the age of 18 who have not been vaccinated with the MMR jab were to stay away from schools and all public areas.

One doctor told The Moorlander that she gets almost daily information from NHS England about the fall in numbers of people taking up the MMR vaccine, particularly in certain towns on Dartmoor and in wider Devon.

Many GPs these days have never seen measles and although they know what to look out for, they have never had the experience of dealing with a measles patient.

“People who believe the myths spread by anti-vaccine campaigners are absolutely wrong,” said Professor Dame Sally Davies from the Chief Medical Office.

She went on to say: “The MMR vaccine was safe and had been given to millions of children world -wide but the current up take is currently not good enough.”

In England 87% of children receive two doses but the target is 95% which gives what is known as ‘Herd Immunity’.

Herd immunity is the level that would, to a certain extent, protect any given community. In certain communities in Devon this has dropped well below safe levels. Dame Sally urged parents to get their children vaccinated and ignore ‘social media fake news’.

She said that myths peddled about the dangers of vaccines on social media was one of the reasons parents weren’t taking their children to get the MMR vaccine.

In 1998 a study by former doctor Andrew Wakefield wrongly linked the MMR vaccine to autism; his research was completely discredited and Wakefield was struck off the medical register.

Researchers followed up on 650,000 Danish children until they were on average 8 years old. They found around 1% of them had developed autism.
Most children in the study had received the MMR vaccine. There was no difference in the rates of autism between those who’d been vaccinated and those who had not.

A recent study has confirmed that there’s no link between autism and the MMR vaccine.

Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health, told The Moorlander newspaper: “Vaccination saves lives – and dropping vaccine rates must be reversed. Its mission critical that we champion science and objective fact to lead the push-back against fake news and this worrying trend.”

Mr Hancock also said he was worried that social media was spreading false information about the MMR vaccine. He said that he was working on ways in which legislation could be used to target social media companies to stop them from promoting anti-vaccine content.

“We are looking at legislating for the duty of care that social media companies in particular have towards the people on their sites,” he said.

“This is an important part of that duty of care alongside all the other things that social media companies need to do, like tackling material that promotes suicide and self-harm and, of course, terrorism.”

In a statement Facebook, which owns Instagram, said: “We are working to tackle vaccine misinformation…by reducing its distribution and providing people with authoritative information on the topic.”

Measures to be taken, according to the company, include rejecting ads with misinformation about vaccines and not showing misleading content on hashtag pages.

Why have parents stopped vaccinating their children?

By Ben Fox
Take a gander at social media, or any digital forum, and that is all it takes to fall down the rabbit hole of the anti-vaccine movement. It is social media that is widely being blamed as the cause of a fall in MMR vaccinations.

You only need to spend a short time on Instagram, for example, and in the midst of photos of beaches, sunsets and avocados, there are posts by those promoting anti-vaccination information.

In fact, Simon Stevens, the head of the NHS, has branded this type of material as “fake news”.

Dr Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project established 10 years ago at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, calls it societal “hubris”, whereby as infectious diseases are brought under control, attention turns to the risk of the vaccine itself, even if it is minimal in comparison.

In recent years, she says, the sheer scale of the anti-vaccine messages online has become far harder for health professionals to contest.

There has also been some suggestion that strong religious views have played a part in the fall of those being vaccinated. Some of the largest drops have been in areas with a strong Charedi Jewish and Muslim communities.

Those inspired by the growing natural health movement are also choosing not to vaccinate their children.

One mother interviewed about her decision not to vaccinate her child said: “There’s not enough information out there.

‘You’re just told, if you don’t vaccinate your kids they’ll get measles, and you’re a stupid hippy. You’re chastised by the health system if you don’t do things by the book, in the same way as if you don’t breastfeed. It’s really hard as a parent to navigate.”

However, those in the medical profession, on the whole, have expressed their impatience for such views.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said “one unvaccinated child is one too many” and recent measles outbreaks are a sharp reminder of how serious the disease can be.

The hope among the medical community is that their voices can once again cut through the febrile debate.

“There is a lack of information out there, apart from a few very vociferous people shouting loudly,” says Professor Arne Akbar, president of the British Society of Immunology.

“People are being bamboozled and misled.”

Serious complications with measles include liver infection, misalignment of the eyes (squint), infection of the brain, blindness, heart and nervous system complications.

Measles in pregnancy risks miscarriage, still birth and premature birth.

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