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Half a million UK children at risk of measles after missing vaccination, Unicef warns

NHS chief warns of vaccine rejection ‘timebomb’ and calls for zero tolerance approach to scare stories on social media

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Thursday 25 April 2019 06:22 BST
Andrew Wakefield describes his relationship with Donald Trump

More than half a million children in the UK are at risk from the potentially deadly measles virus because they missed their recommended immunisations in the last eight years, new figures show.

Analysis by the children’s charity Unicef warns that a rising number of infants worldwide are missing out on the measles jab, with 21 million a year needlessly put at risk of infection since 2010.

Among high income nations, the UK has the third highest number of children who missed their first round of immunisations, with a total of 527,000 put at risk over the past eight years.

Only the US and France had more affected children, with 2.6 million and 608,000 respectively missing their first dose between 2010 and 2017, according to the data from Unicef and World Health Organisation (WHO).

While ineffective health systems in low income nations are a major factor, the charity said measles emerging as a threat in wealthier nations is down to “complacency, fear or scepticism” about vaccine safety.

More recently this has been amplified on social media with fringe anti-vaccine sceptics able to reach large audiences and endorsed by prominent politicians like Donald Trump and Italy’s Matteo Salvini.

Other countries in the top 10 wealthy nations include Japan and Germany – which both have a larger population than the UK – as well as Argentina, Italy, Canada and Australia.

“The measles virus will always find unvaccinated children,” Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore said.

“If we are serious about averting the spread of this dangerous but preventable disease, we need to vaccinate every child, in rich and poor countries alike.”

Last week the WHO warned that its preliminary data from the first three months of 2019 showed that the number of measles cases reported worldwide was 300 per cent higher than the same period in 2018.

While vaccination prevents it spreading, this is only effective when 95 per cent of the population are immunised. In 2017, only 85 per cent of children had their first jab globally, and only 67 per cent received the second dose required to give full immunity.

Low vaccination rates two decades ago have contributed to major outbreaks in the UK last year, with cases in England alone four times higher than in 2017.

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said this was a “growing public health time-bomb” and hit out at myths being spread on social media.

“It is grossly irresponsible for anybody to spread scare stories about vaccines, and social media firms should have a zero tolerance approach towards this dangerous content,” Mr Stevens added.

Public Health England said the overall risk of measles was “low” with cases mainly sparked from visitors to Europe where an outbreak affecting Romania, Italy, Greece and Germany has seen cases hit a decade high.

But NHS data shows that the number of children receiving the first dose of the MMR jab before the their second birthday fell for the fourth consecutive year in 2018 as more patients delay vaccinating.

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While 95 per cent of children received the first dose by their fifth birthday in 2016/17 this fell in 2017/18 (to 94.9 per cent) and fewer than 88% received the second dose required for complete protection.

Measles is highly contagious and killed 110,000 people – mostly children – in 2017, a rise of 22 per cent on the year before. But low and middle income nations are disproportionately affected.

The Unicef analysis shows Nigeria had the highest number of children under the age of one who missed out on the first dose of measles vaccine, at nearly 4 million.

It was followed by India (2.9 million), Pakistan and Indonesia (1.2 million each), and Ethiopia (1.1 million).

In Madagascar there have been 1,200 measles deaths since September, many of them children, and the 117,000 cases have occurred because just 58 per cent of people are vaccinated.

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