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New vaccination drive in England to tackle measles surge

The NHS in England has launched a new immunisation campaign to address rising rates of measles.

Millions of people, including parents and under-25s, are being contacted by the health service over missed measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccinations.

“The diseases that these vaccines protect against, such as measles, can be life-changing and even deadly”

Gayatri Amirthalingam

The ‘catch up’ campaign will see all parents of unvaccinated children aged six to 11 in England contacted to ask them to make an appointment with a local GP surgery to get their child the vaccine.

As well as this, the campaign will target the West Midlands and London – where uptake has been particularly low – and contact people aged 11-25 who are without MMR vaccination, to ask them to book an appointment.

It comes as reports of measles outbreaks across the UK have sparked concern in recent months.

The NHS estimated that more than 3.4 million children under the age of 16 in England are unprotected from the three preventable diseases.

The vaccine is typically given at 12 months old and a second dose at three years and four months before starting school.

Data shows that uptake of both MMR vaccines has been declining each year in England since 2014-15 and is consistently below the 95% target.

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In 2022-23, 84.5% of children had been fully vaccinated against MMR by their fifth birthday.

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) consultant epidemiologist Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam described a “downward trend” in childhood vaccinations in general and said it was of “serious concern”.

“The diseases that these vaccines protect against, such as measles, can be life-changing and even deadly,” said Dr Amirthalingam.

“No parent wants this for their child especially when these diseases are easily preventable.

“We now have a very real risk of measles outbreaks across the country.”

A surge of measles cases in England has caused the UKHSA to declare a national health incident, with an outbreak currently underway in the West Midlands.

Between 1 October 2023 and 18 January 2024, there were 216 confirmed cases and 103 probable cases in the West Midlands.

Of these around 80% were in Birmingham, and a further 10% in Coventry. The majority were in children under 10.

Nationally across England, there were 209 confirmed measles cases between January 2023 and November 2023 including 104 in London.

The UKHSA has recently warned that, unless “urgent action” is taken to increase MMR vaccination uptake in the areas of greatest risk, further outbreaks are likely.

Meanwhile, a November outbreak of measles in Cardiff, which has now been concluded according to Public Health Wales, sparked the devolved Welsh health service to begin its own vaccination campaign.

Amanda Healy, policy lead for health protection at the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH), said current outbreaks were “concerning” but unsurprising, due to the low vaccine uptake.

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She said “more” must be done to raise awareness of the importance of parents getting their children both doses of the MMR vaccine.

Ms Healy said: “We know for example that people living in poverty and those living in rural areas are less likely to be vaccinated. We must ask why that is and remove the barriers that currently make getting the vaccine difficult.

“We also need to use the learning from the Covid-19 vaccination roll out. Community champions and trusted local leaders were instrumental in supporting health professionals to raise awareness and dispel myths amongst their communities.

“This community engagement is key to the success of all our vaccinations programme and directors of public health, who know their local populations really well, will continue to work with them to support the NHS to roll out this – and other – vaccination programmes.”

“The nurse reassured us both and it has put my mind at rest to know he is now protected”

Samantha Murray-James

Samantha Murray-James, the mother of a child who was immunised after being contacted by the NHS, encouraged other parents to follow suit as the new campaign launched.

“I’d heard stories from my grandmother about measles and how she nursed her children in a darkened room to stop them going blind with it in the 1950s, but didn’t think it was still a problem now,” she said.

“When I heard that measles was making a comeback in the news I was worried about my son, Lucca who was just a few months old.

“As soon as my GP invited me around his first birthday I booked him an appointment to get his first MMR vaccine. The nurse reassured us both and it has put my mind at rest to know he is now protected.”

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Steve Russell, NHS director of vaccinations and screening, urged people to come forward and get the vaccine.

“Measles is a serious illness, with one in five children who get the disease having to be admitted to hospital for treatment, so if you or your child have not had your MMR jab, it is vital you come forward,” said Mr Russell.

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