Warning over 'real threat' of measles deaths

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Indy Lifestyle Online

So many parents are shunning the controversial MMR vaccine that protection against childhood diseases has plunged to dangerously low levels, leading doctors warned yesterday.

Dr George Kassianos, who speaks for the Royal College of General Practitioners on immunisation, said the problem was so acute in some towns and cities that babies were at real risk of dying from measles.

Dr Kassianos said outbreaks of measles could happen at any time in some areas. "We are facing a real prospect of outbreaks in various parts of the UK and we are going to start to see dead babies," he said. "We are in very real danger of losing babies unless parents look at the medical evidence and are no longer scared by the press."

Parents have been ignoring government advice to give their baby the MMR jab, which protects against three diseases ­ measles, mumps and rubella ­ because of fears that it is linked to autism and bowel disease.

Dr Bernard Schlecht, a consultant in communicable disease control for North Cheshire Health Authority, said yesterday that the vaccination rate in one area, Halton, a suburb of Runcorn, had fallen to 77 per cent.

"There is a very real chance of children catching this killer disease this winter if they are not protected with the MMR vaccine," he said. "Those who lived through the devastating outbreak of measles in Warrington in 1930 will never forget it." The Warrington outbreak had killed 31 children.

The Government's national target for the MMR vaccine is 95 per cent. But after reaching a peak of 92 per cent in 1995, the rate has fallen to 84 per cent. The fall is blamed on the fears over its safety. Figures to be published this month are expected to show a marginal improvement, but coverage is still well below the percentage needed to give widespread immunity.

In Ireland, where the rate has fallen to 78 per cent, there were 1,300 cases of measles last year and two children died. In certain urban areas in Britain, including some in London, only 74 or 75 per cent of children have been vaccinated, Dr Kassianos said. He declined to name the other areas outside the capital.

Parents' fear of MMR follows the work of Dr Andrew Wakefield, whose research has linked the jab with autism and bowel disease. Dr Wakefield, whose views are disputed by the Department of Health, says that he was forced out of his post as a consultant gastroenterologist at the Royal Free Hospital Medical School in London in the aftermath of the controversy. At the time, University College London, which controls the Royal Free, said Dr Wakefield had quit "by mutual consent".

The national debate on the subject returned to public attention last month when Tony Blair declined to say in the House of Commons whether his son Leo had been given the jab.

Dr Kassianos and Dr Schlecht insisted yesterday that links with autism were unfounded, adding that the three-in-one vaccine had proved to be highly effective and had an excellent safety record.

MMR also protected against potentially fatal complications caused by the measles virus, including damage to the nervous system and inflammation of the brain, Dr Kassianos said.

No country in the world recommended giving all three vaccines singly, he said, although in Japan, measles and rubella were given on the same day, and mumps was offered later if parents requested it. Japan had 79 deaths from measles between 1992 and 1997.

The Department of Health stopped providing single measles vaccines after the MMR jab was introduced in 1988. A spokesman for the department said: "We are working very hard to ensure that health professionals and parents get all the information they need to make a choice and decide that MMR is the safest and most effective way to protect children."