After measles cases surged by 50% globally in 2018 and the UK lost its measles elimination status, Matt Hancock has revealed the government is looking at banning children from school if they do not get vaccinated.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, the health secretary said there is a “very strong argument” for making vaccinations compulsory for children.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) attributes the global increase in measles cases to a lack of access to the vaccine in poorer countries. But some experts believe in wealthier areas, misinformation led by the anti-vaccine movement is causing a decrease in vaccine uptake.
Articles written and shared on social media promoting anti-vaccine information have been deemed problematic and some platforms have taken action. Earlier this year, Pinterest said it would actively remove measles misinformation from its platform.
Instagram said it would block hashtags that draw out “verifiably false” posts – but said it would not target anti-vaccine opinions. And Facebook said it will reduce the reach of anti-vaccine information by not allowing promoted ads or recommendations, and making the information less prominent in search results.
The anti-vaccine movement has been a “wake-up call” for all GPs, says Dr Kenny Livingstone, a GP and chief medical officer for online private doctor service, ZoomDoc.
“We are hugely concerned,” he tells HuffPost UK. “The reality is stark and clear: with decreased vaccine uptake, there are now increasing numbers of young children and adolescents being exposed to measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), amongst other illness.”
Last year there were nearly 1,000 laboratory confirmed cases of measles in England alone, and it killed 72 children and adults in Europe in 2018.
Data from Public Health England (PHE) shows that uptake of most childhood vaccines has been steadily decreasing since 2012-13. Surveys by the health body suggest parental confidence in vaccines is high, with “very few” refusing to get their children vaccinated. There is “little evidence” that anti-vaccine social media activity has had a major impact on vaccine coverage in England, a spokesperson for PHE said.
That said, research from the health body shows almost one quarter (22%) of parents think social media is a trusted source of information, and the worry is that some children may miss out on jabs and remain vulnerable to serious or even fatal infections.
What Vaccines Should Kids Have?
In the UK the vaccinations available to children include the six-in-one vaccine for babies (which covers off things like diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio), the pneumococcal jab, rotavirus vaccine, meningitis vaccine and MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps and rubella). You can read about them on the NHS Choices site.
Vaccines are important in the first few years of a child’s life because their immune systems are still developing and might not be strong enough to fight off illnesses.
What Are The Myths Surrounding Vaccination?
Some parents shy away from giving their kids the MMR vaccine over fears that it may cause autism, yet there is no proven link between the two. “The misconceptions surrounding autism and the MMR vaccine are proven to be categorically false, based on a flawed study,” says Dr Livingstone. “It’s important to be clear that there is no science behind anti-vaxxers ideas and myths.”
Some people believe giving a child lots of vaccines can overload their immune system. This isn’t true, confirms the NHS – studies have shown there are no harmful effects from having several vaccines at the same time.
Newborn babies have some protection from diseases passed down from their mothers (otherwise known as passive immunity), but this only lasts for a few weeks or months, and the recommended vaccines top this up.
Furthermore, homeopathy should never be used as an alternative to vaccines as there is no evidence it works, PHE warns.
What Happens If You Don’t Vaccinate Your Child?
When a high percentage of the population is protected against a disease through vaccination, it becomes harder for the disease spread – also known as ‘herd immunity’.
But it doesn’t take much of a decline in vaccination uptake for herd immunity to be less effective. This is especially true for highly infectious diseases – in both Europe and England, measles outbreaks have occurred and killed people.
Children who are not vaccinated have a higher risk of contracting the illness they haven’t been protected against – and experiencing lifelong effects. If a young boy gets mumps, for example, this can affect his testicles and result in infertility later in life, Dr Livingstone explains.
If a young girl does not have the MMR jab and, once grown up, is exposed to rubella while pregnant with her own children, it could cause problems with her unborn child’s sight, hearing, heart or brain.
Meanwhile young children exposed to measles are at risk of complications including pneumonia, convulsions, meningitis or encephalitis – and this can lead to death.
“As a GP and a parent with three young children, I have looked at and studied the science and evidence behind vaccines,” says Dr Livingstone. “I have vaccinated all of my children as it will protect both them and also young children that are unfortunately unable to have vaccines.”
Is The Anti-Vaccine Movement Being Monitored?
PHE said it is “not complacent” when it comes to vaccine uptake and will monitor the situation closely. “The overwhelming weight of evidence and scientific opinion, worldwide, is that vaccines save lives and prevent millions of people from getting life-threatening diseases,” says PHE’s spokesperson.
“We know that inaccurate claims about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines can affect public confidence and lead to rejection of vaccination. This then puts people at risk of serious illness.”
“We are working closely with the NHS, and with staff in general practice where most vaccinations are delivered, to improve uptake.”