Scientists from the Department of Health's Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) believe the poor uptake of the MMR vaccine will lead to the first measles epidemic for several years when toddlers enter school in two or three years' time.
They are also concerned that the Government's strategy for controlling congenital rubella - when babies are born disabled as a result of their mothers being infected with German measles - will be set back 20 years. At that time, up to 50 rubella babies were born disabled every year.
Concern over the safety of the triple MMR vaccine was raised by a study published in the Lancet last February linking it with bowel disease and autism, but PHLS scientists yesterday dismissed the research as "whimsical" and reiterated the Government's position that the triple vaccine is more efficient than using single vaccines against measles.
Roland Salmond, a consultant epidemiologist at the PHLS in south Wales, said that calls for reverting to single vaccines were based on little more than "hunch and supposition".
He admitted, however, that lack of public confidence in the childhood vaccination programme threatens to result in a major outbreak of measles in schoolchildren and rubella in newborn babies.
"We're getting early intelligence of problems to come," he told the British Association yesterday. "The level of uptake has to be above 90 to 95 per cent to keep the country what it is at the moment, which is measles- free."
Uptake nationally is about 85 per cent but in some areas it has slipped to 67 per cent, he said. "At that level, if it persists into the sort of ages when children congregate together at school we may expect ... measles outbreaks to take place. If it persists in girls until they reach child- bearing age, then certainly if it falls to lower than 85 per cent you can equate that with the policy in the UK before the MMR vaccine was introduced."
Dr Julius Weinberg, a senior scientist at the PHLS, defended the Government's strategy of promoting the use of MMR rather than reverting to single vaccinations, which were abandoned in 1988. But he accepted that the poor uptake in childhood posed serious concerns. "The responsible thing for us to do is to explain to the public what the good evidence shows. I don't expect it to work instantly, but there is time to catch up," he said.
Last week, the health department sent 2.5 million leaflets on MMR to GPs in England and Wales in an attempt to counter damaging publicity surrounding the vaccine. It says there is no evidence of a link between MMR and autism and bowel disease.Reuse content