As the number of children diagnosed with measles in Swansea (620) nears the number diagnosed in the North-West England outbreak last year, concern is rising that older children who missed the MMR vaccine are now those most at risk.
The steep decline in uptake of the MMR vaccine in the late 1990s, following false claims of a link to autism, means that most children now aged 10–17 were not vaccinated – and this age group has been most affected by the recent outbreaks.
US-based measles expert Dr Paul Offit, speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight, said the US policy of mandatory vaccination was the best way to protect children against highly dangerous diseases such as measles.
In the US, he noted, families can opt out of vaccination programmes on grounds of personal belief – but “we just don’t think it’s your inalienable right to catch and transmit a potentially fatal infection”.
The NHS in England and Wales relies on families opting into vaccination programmes, which can leave them vulnerable to unreliable ‘scares’ such as the autism claim.
NHS responses to the Swansea and North-West England measles epidemics have included: letters to all parents of children in the affected areas; hospital drop-in vaccination clinics; special GP surgery vaccination sessions; and school-based vaccination programmes.
Measles can lead to complications including sight loss, hearing loss and death. The MMR vaccine, which comes in two doses a month apart, gives 99% protection against the virus.
Scientist Lord Robert Winston commented: “We need to encourage people to understand that this is a safe vaccine and it’s been widely tested and there’s no evidence at all of autism with it.”