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Want to get rid of measles? Make the vaccine compulsory for kids

The recent rise in measles cases has prompted a vaccination campaign in England: about time! We’ve been watching a tragedy in the making

Sean O'Grady
Monday 22 January 2024 19:15 GMT
Measles signs and symptoms as 'national incident' declared

A public health disaster is unfolding before our eyes – yet (unlike Covid) it’s one we could see coming. And it could have been so easily avoided.

The surge in measles cases in particular is becoming extremely worrying. The UK Health Security Agency has said, alarmingly, that between January and November 2023, there were 209 lab-confirmed cases of measles in England.

They seem to be concentrated in London and the West Midlands, but not confined there, with reports of other outbreaks in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Given the extremely high rate of infection, things can only get worse.

It is directly related to the fall in childhood vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella (the combined MMR vaccine). That, in turn, is directly due to some old but persistent misinformation about a supposed link to autism and (more recently) the anti-vax movement that has already done so much damage over the Covid vaccine.

It is a tragedy in the making, and it is time to do something about it before it inflicts still more harm: serious illness, permanent disabilities and death. Like Covid, measles, mumps and rubella (german measles) are not trivial complaints.

Nor, indeed, are diphtheria, hepatitis B, Hib, polio, tetanus, whooping cough, rotavirus and meningitis B – all of which threaten a return as vaccine hesitancy, born out of social media scaremongering and myth-making, erode confidence in science. In many ways, the “next pandemic” we need to be most concerned about is already upon us – the epidemics in anti-science beliefs across many countries.

In such circumstances, the case almost makes itself for mandatory vaccination against these potentially deadly childhood diseases. It cannot be a matter for purely individual parental choice, strong though that should always be.

The point is that when infection rates soar and cases multiply, the decision to not vaccinate a child has much wider consequences, because we’re talking about highly infectious diseases. Your child might be lucky enough to survive a bout of measles or the other illnesses unscathed, but that might not be true of other children that catch the disease from them.

The effects on an adult can also be severe. For example, rubella infection during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage (loss of the foetus within 20 weeks of conception) and stillbirth (death of the foetus after 20 weeks of pregnancy). Some 33 per cent of infants born with congenital rubella syndrome die before their first birthday. We cannot stand by and allow this to progress to epidemic proportions.

Only by getting universal vaccination rates back up to 95 per cent and above can the nation’s children and indeed adults mix in safety and without fear of life-changing consequences – herd immunity has to be restored if normal life is to continue. And if a school has to close because of an outbreak, then everyone’s offspring suffer a detriment to their education and their life chances.

The greatest adverse effect is on the NHS. To revive a past slogan, childhood vaccinations save lives and protect the NHS. A return on a mass scale of diseases we thought had been almost eradicated will impose huge strains and costs on the NHS which it should not have to deal with, nor the taxpayer have to fund.

Like smoking, the state is under an obligation to balance individual responsibility and the costs – “externalities” as the economists say – to others and society as a whole. You may be prepared to take the risk of your child dying – but why impose that risk on others without cost or consequence to you?

It is a matter of balance. It feels wrong to subject people to forced vaccination, where they are held down and forcibly attacked. That is a violation of someone’s body that can’t be countenanced in a free society.

The key to making vaccination mandatory is to confront parents with a hard choice, by making free state education conditional on certain vaccinations being carried out at prescribed times – a vaccine passport, if you like. The same could apply to child benefits. The parents remain free to choose – but the choice to risk other people’s health comes freighted with penalties.

It’s a balance of rights – to education – and duties, in this case not to endanger the health of others and of the minor concerned. After all, we have laws to protect children from abuse and beatings, and parental power is not ever absolute. A child is not a piece of property which a parent or guardian can treat and mistreat as they wish; and no child, once they comprehend it, is going to thank mummy and daddy for leaving them deaf because they wouldn’t take up the offer of a vaccine.

In return, the NHS should allow nervous parents to take the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines separately and to make all vaccines free of any animal-derived product, rather than just offering the option. We also need to show how much the anti-vax movement is driven by the business model of social media – the more frightening, emotional and ugly the content, the greater the engagements and the larger the opportunity to sell bogus medicines and books: grifting, as they call it.

Britain probably won’t follow the example of much of Europe and make vaccines mandatory, and we will have to witness the horrific effects of parental misjudgements inflicted on their own and others’ children before people are galvanised into eventual panicky action. Even then, vaccine-hesitancy-generated myths and misunderstandings will persist and periodically take hold in the minds of the populace.

Anti-vaccination scares recurred throughout the 19th century, for example, and it seems populations are just as susceptible to such outbreaks of irrational, primitive, unscientific fears today.

We should take it seriously. This stuff kills kids, and the likes of Elon Musk and the editors of some supposedly mainstream media channels should be made accountable for allowing this vile anti-science anti-vax propaganda to gain currency and bogus credibility. Meanwhile, we need to push vaccine take-up rates higher via persuasion and policy.

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