The UK’s measles-free status has recently been revoked and the MMR vaccine uptake has dropped off, so how can you best protect your child?
In 2016, the World Health Organization declared that the UK was a measles-free country, after vaccination rates reached the desired 95 per cent threshold, disrupting measles transmission and ensuring ‘herd immunity’.
Fast forward three years and the nation has now lost its measles-free status. But how has this happened – and what can be done about it?
Measles vaccination works
The simple fact is that over the past three years, vaccination rates against measles have begun to fall. Recent data suggests that only 91 per cent of children are now vaccinated against measles by their second birthday, with just 87 per cent receiving the second dose of the vaccine by their fifth birthday. The vaccination rate was as low as 66.7 per cent in one London Borough in 2017/18.
Vaccinating against measles (with the MMR vaccine) is the most effective way of protecting your child against the illness.
But vaccinating against measles (with the MMR vaccine) is the most effective way of protecting your child against the illness.
‘The best way to lower your risk of contracting measles is to have the MMR jab,’ states Stuart Gale, chief pharmacist and owner of Oxford Online Pharmacy. ‘This is given routinely as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.’
Why have people stopped vaccinating against measles?
So why the drop in uptake of the MMR vaccine? It’s thought to be due to three main reasons:
1.Measles and anti-vaccination propaganda
The first is the availability of unscientific anti-vaccination propaganda available online. This spreads doubt and misinformation, causing people to believe that vaccines are unsafe, which is simply not true.
When it comes to the MMR vaccine, fears generally still stem from disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield, who had a paper published in The Lancet linking the MMR jab with autism. This generated the birth of the “anti-vax” movement, and still sparks fears among some today – despite the fact that the paper was later universally discredited, with The Lancet editor Richard Horton describing it as “utterly false”. Wakefield was struck off the medical register.
‘The MMR vaccine is safe and effective in reducing the incidence of measles,’ says Gale.
2. Measles and complacency
Experts believe that when an illness becomes less common among society, people begin to think of it as a less dangerous illness. They therefore don’t feel it’s necessary to vaccinate against it.
However, far from being a mild childhood illness, measles is an unpleasant and uncomfortable disease with potentially life-threatening side-effects.
‘Measles complications include problems with hearing and sight, as well as pneumonia,’ explains Gale. ‘These are most common in children under the age of one, and some teenagers and adults. In some cases, measles can cause death, although this is rare.’
3. Measles and reliance on herd immunity
When vaccination rates among a population are high (and therefore prevalence of the illness low), you might think it unnecessary to get your child vaccinated, because appearances suggest the illness has been eradicated. However, as the name suggests, ‘herd’ immunity relies on the majority of the population remaining vaccinated – otherwise the disease reappears. This is what has happened here in the UK.
‘Herd immunity describes resistance to the spread of a contagious disease,’ reveals Gale. ‘This occurs when a high proportion of a population is immune to a specific disease, usually through vaccination.’
There are some within the community who truly rely on herd immunity because they are unable to receive the vaccine (children under one year of age, for example, or those with weak immune systems, such as those undergoing cancer treatment). Therefore, it’s important for everyone who is able to have the vaccine to get it, to help keep vulnerable members of society safe.
‘Very few people are unable to have the MMR vaccine,’ says Gale. ‘Some groups may be excluded for a specific period of time (pregnant women, for example), whereas others, such as those with a weakened immune system, may be excluded altogether. People who are allergic to any of the ingredients in the MMR vaccine are also unable to have the jab. Consult your GP about your specific concerns.’
The measles vaccination explained
‘The MMR vaccine which protects your child against measles, mumps and rubella comprises two doses,’ explains Gale. ‘The first is given at 12-13 months of age and a second dose is given around the age of four, before the child starts school, although it can be given as soon as three months after the first dose if there is an urgent need.
‘If your child has missed one or both MMR doses, they can have the vaccine at any age, free of charge, on the NHS.’
Measles signs and symptoms
If your child has not been vaccinated against measles, then they are not protected and are at risk of catching the illness.
‘Measles is a highly contagious, airborne virus that is transmitted via water droplets, primarily through sneezing and coughing,’ explains Gale. ‘This can be through direct or indirect contact – where water droplets have been left on a surface that is then touched by someone else, for example.’
Measles symptoms will begin to show around 10 days after you have contracted the illness. Gale reveals that common symptoms include:
- Aches and pains
- A high temperature
- Runny nose
- Sore eyes
- Spots on the insides of the cheeks
- A rash that appears two to four days after initial symptoms appear
Measles complications can include:
- Hearing and sight problems
- Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
What to do if your child has measles
‘You should speak with your GP as soon as possible if you feel you or your child may have contracted the measles virus,’ advises Gale. ‘Antipyretics, such as Calpol or paracetamol, are best for the treatment of associated fever, aches and pains.’