Almost 3.5 million under 16s are at risk of catching measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), the Government has warned as parents were urged to book their children in for jabs.
Health minister Maria Caulfield said there has been a “gradual 10-year decline” in population coverage for the MMR vaccine, with factors cited including Covid disruption to the vaccination programme and the impact of discredited claims made in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield.
MPs heard letters are being sent to parents of unvaccinated children – including one million across London and the West Midlands – while GPs are setting up extra clinics and vaccine buses are “targeting communities with low vaccination rates”.
Figures show there have been 216 confirmed measles cases and 103 probable cases in the West Midlands since October 1 last year.
The majority (80%) came from Birmingham, with the remainder in Coventry. Most cases were in children under 10.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has declared a national incident, an internal mechanism signalling the growing public health risk, following the increase in measles in England.
Ms Caulfield, responding to an urgent question in the Commons, said: “For our MMR vaccine to be working, the WHO (World Health Organisation) recommends at least 95% coverage to maintain population coverage; at the moment our MMR reach is 89.3% for the first dose of 24 months and 84.5% for the second dose at five years.
“This is not a new issue, this has been a gradual 10-year decline in coverage, ranging from a number of factors from the Wakefield generation – when Dr Andrew Wakefield had his discredited paper on the risks of MMR – through to Covid with missing routine vaccinations and a drop since then.
“Also concerns in particular communities, such as the Jewish and Muslim communities, over the type of vaccine used.
“We’ve not been waiting. The NHS carried out a catch-up effort over the last 12 months, proactively contacting parents and carers of unvaccinated children aged five and younger, and we’ve seen a 10% increase in vaccination compared to the previous year.
“But that is not enough. NHS figures show almost 3.5 million under the age of 16 are unprotected and at risk of catching this serious and preventable disease.”
#Measles spreads quickly and can be serious – but how infectious is it? Dr Colin Campbell, Consultant Epidemiologist, explains how measles ranks compared to other diseases and why #vaccination is so important.
— UK Health Security Agency (@UKHSA) January 19, 2024
The minister added: “My message to those mums and dads of children that are not vaccinated at the moment is to come forward.”
Ms Caulfield, in a separate written statement to Parliament, said: “Analysis shows that one infected child in a classroom can infect up to nine other unvaccinated children, making it one of the most infectious diseases worldwide; and more infectious than Covid-19.
“One in five children with measles will need to be admitted to a hospital for treatment – which could put additional pressure on the NHS.”
Shadow health minister Preet Kaur Gill echoed Ms Caulfield’s vaccination call although described the current situation as “entirely preventable”, saying: “The UK was deemed by the WHO to have eradicated measles just five years ago.
“But since then MMR vaccination rates have plummeted, leaving tens of thousands of children completely unprotected meaning that now one-in-five children are not protected with two doses by the age of five.”
Ms Gill said the “warning signs could have been seen from space” as she claimed there had been “complacency” from the Government.
Conservative MP Steve Brine, who chairs the Commons Health Select Committee, asked the minister if she would commit to a “much more flexible delivery model” for vaccinations, including through pharmacy.
Ms Caulfield said the response needs to be “more nimble” to engage with all communities, adding: “(Mr Brine) is right about using pharmacy, with Pharmacy First as a model, to make it even easier for people to come forward, but the real barrier is people’s reluctance to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons.”
The vaccine catch-up scheme will target all parents of children aged six to 11, urging them to make an appointment for any missed MMR jabs.
It will also target areas of low uptake, contacting more than one million people aged 11 to 25 in London and the West Midlands.
The first dose of the MMR jab is usually offered to babies aged one, with the second dose given at three years and four months.
Steve Russell, NHS director of vaccinations and screening, said the health service “is acting quickly to tackle the spread of measles”.
Measles cases are rising in England.
You can still ask your GP practice for the MMR vaccine if your child has missed either of these 2 doses.
— NHS (@NHSuk) January 19, 2024
Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam, consultant medical epidemiologist at UKHSA, added: “The continuing downward trend in the uptake of routine childhood vaccinations is a serious concern.
“The diseases that these vaccines protect against, such as measles, can be life-changing and even deadly. No parent wants this for their child especially when these diseases are easily preventable.
“We now have a very real risk of measles outbreaks across the country.”
NHS England said data shows the MMR jab is “safe and very effective”.
About 99% of people will be protected against measles and rubella after two doses, while about 88% will be protected from mumps.