The number of children in England being vaccinated against potentially deadly diseases has declined, new figures show, which leading nurses warn is “turning back the clock and leaving thousands of children unprotected”.
Coverage for the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine in England for children reaching their second birthday has fallen for a fourth year in a row in England, hitting a five-year low of 91.2%, according to NHS Digital.
For children reaching their fifth birthday, MMR coverage in England has dropped from 95% to 94.9% in the past year.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends children that coverage is at least 95%.
Last month, the WHO blamed low MMR vaccination rates for the measles outbreak in Europe, where more than 41,000 cases in children and adults had been reported in the first six months of this year, causing at least 37 deaths.
It is almost double the entire number of measles cases reported in Europe for the whole of 2017, which was recorded at almost 24,000.
When the figures were broken down by region, it showed that London performed the worst with just 85.1% of children reaching their second birthday receiving the vaccination – the same level as the previous year. The North East had the highest level of coverage at 94.5%, but had still declined since last year.
All in all, six out of the nine regions in England showed a decline in coverage for the vaccine.
Uptake of the MMR vaccine fell heavily in the late 1990s following the publication of research by Andrew Wakefield which suggested a possible link between the inoculation and autism, with coverage levels hitting a low of 80% in 2003. Experts have widely discredited Wakefield’s study since and he was struck off the medical register in 2010.
And despite the WHO declaring the UK had eliminated measles last year – which is verified “once a country has sustained interruption of endemic transition for at least 36 months” – Public Health England figures show that 876 laboratory confirmed cases of measles have been recorded in 2018 between 1 January and 10 September.
The latest NHS data, which comes from the report on Childhood Vaccination Coverage Statistics, showed a decline in nine out of 12 routine vaccinations for children up to the age of five over the past year, and increased in just one. Those in decline included two-year-olds receiving the Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type B) and MenC vaccine, and one-year-olds getting the five-in-one jab for diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio Hib.
Professionals are encouraging parents to protect their children by ensuring they are fully immunised, Dr Michael Edelstein, consultant epidemiologist at Public Health England said, adding: “We are working closely with the NHS, and with staff in general practice where most vaccinations are delivered, to improve uptake.”
Helen Donovan, professional lead for public health at the Royal College of Nursing, said that Britain had been declared free of endemic measles for the first time last year, but “these figures show we are turning the clock back and leaving thousands of children unprotected”.
“Coverage declined in nine out of 12 routine vaccination measures compared to last year.
“This means immunity against deadly or life-changing diseases such as tetanus, diphtheria and polio is dropping. These were diseases of the past - they should not be part of our future.”