The need for a legally mandatory childhood vaccination policy has been brought into sharp focus this month as it has been announced the UK has officially lost its ‘measles-free status’. The news comes just three years after the potentially deadly virus was eliminated from the country.
According to the WHO, measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children, while it can also lead to serious complications, particularly in young children and adults over the age of 30, including blindness and a swelling of the brain.
Typically, the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is administered to one year-old children with a second dose a few years later. However, babies as young as six to eleven months old can also receive the MMR but will need two additional doses after their first birthday. A full dose of the MMR is believed to be about 97% effective at preventing measles, which makes a compelling argument for mandatory vaccination.
Campaigns warning of alleged perils of immunisation have undoubtedly impacted the decrease in vaccination rates in recent years. This is despite the fact that extreme claims, including that autism is caused by the MMR vaccinations, have been widely discredited.
The reality is that vaccines don’t solely protect the person who receives them but also the wider community, as most vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles, are spread from person to person. All it takes is for one person in a community to contract the virus, for it to be spread to others who are not immune.
International travel is also a contributing factor, as the virus can be contracted by an un-vaccinated person while traveling abroad and brought back to the UK. This is something to be particularly mindful of for those travelling with babies under six months, who are too young to be vaccinated themselves, and will only have limited protection from the antibodies of their mother, if she is vaccinated herself. Therefore, the more people who are vaccinated, the fewer opportunities measles has to spread.
We know that mandatory vaccination has already been successfully implemented in a number of countries, while others do not allow children to attend school unless they can show proof that they have been vaccinated.
In Italy, for example, a law was recently introduced requiring parents to vaccinate their children against measles and nine other childhood diseases, including chicken pox, polio and mumps. Under this law, children under six can be turned away from nursery or kindergarten if they do not have proof of vaccination, while parents of six to 16 year-old’s can be fined if they fail to complete the mandatory course of immunisations.
Following an outbreak of measles at Disneyland in California, the U.S. state changed its laws to make it more difficult for parents to have their children opt out of being vaccinated, which ultimately led to higher rates of vaccination.
Meanwhile, in Australia, the so-called ‘no jab, no pay’ policy contains financial incentives and disincentives, and allows patients who are less well-off financially gain access to family tax rebates if they keep their child up-to-date with their various vaccinations.
We have a collective responsibility to protect future generations, especially those who are more susceptible to illness and disease. The UK needs to learn from what is being done in other countries and impose legally mandatory vaccination as a matter of urgency, if it is to return to a ‘measles-free’ status.
Dr Ulrike Sucher is Medical Director of Allianz Care