The proportion of youngsters receiving the triple MMR jab in England increased slightly last year, the first rise in uptake in almost a decade.

Statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre showed that uptake of the vaccine among two-year-olds was 81 per cent in 2004-05, up from 80 per cent in 2003-04.

This is the first year-on-year increase since 1995-96, when uptake of the jab peaked at 92 per cent.

In 1998 research claimed that the measles, mumps and rubella jab was linked to autism. This research by Dr Andrew Wakefield, published in The Lancet in 1998, has since been discredited, although many parents remain concerned, leading to levels remaining lower than hoped.

Research published in The Lancet last year concluded that there was no evidence to support a link between the combined vaccine and autism in children.

MMR vaccination in England still remains well below the level of 95 per cent recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Experts believe immunisation with MMR is below levels needed to avoid an epidemic of measles, a potentially life-threatening infection.

Rising cases of mumps and measles have been blamed on fewer youngsters receiving the MMR jab.

Today's figures showed wide variations between regions in uptake of MMR, with London having some of the lowest rates. London as a whole had an MMR uptake rate of 71 per cent, but this fell to 50 per cent in Kensington and Chelsea, 54 per cent in Lambeth and 56 per cent in Lewisham. It is possible that more parents could have paid for their children to be protected with single vaccinations.

The figures also showed that uptake of vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, whooping cough, Hib and meningitis C remained at around 93 per cent - similar levels to those reported in 2003-04.

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "MMR remains the best form of protection against measles, mumps and rubella. This annual data shows that eight out of 10 children aged two had received their MMR, and the data show a small increase in uptake compared to last year.

"A recent major study of UK children concluded that children who receive the MMR vaccine have no increased risk of autism than children who don't have the vaccine. "This is consistent with numerous other studies from the UK and around the world."