Why UK vaccination rates are falling

Take-up rate of all key childhood jabs has dropped for first time on record

Young child receives vaccination at a health centre
(Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty)

Thousands of children are missing out on routine childhood vaccinations across England, experts are warning.

The latest figures from NHS Digital for England in the year to the end of March 2019 show a marked decline in the uptakes of jabs for 13 different diseases, including whooping cough, diphtheria and meningitis. The number of children having all of the vaccines offered by the NHS has also fallen, for the first time on record.

In 2018-19, 90.3% of children completed their first dose of the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine, compared with 91.2% over the previous 12 months. And just 86.4% of children received the second dose of the MMR by their fifth birthday, down from 87.2% year-on-year.

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“Although these changes are small proportions, these are big drops in terms of public health,” said Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England (PHE). “The trend is a concerning continuation of what we’ve seen in the last five years.”

Vaccination is the process whereby molecules from or similar to pathogens, either viruses or bacteria, are introduced into the body, usually through an injection, in order to train the immune system to recognise and protect against them.

Vaccines have led to the eradication of the smallpox virus and some types of polio. Other diseases have been dramatically brought under control, including mumps, diphtheria, rubella and hepatitis.

Reuters says that eroding confidence in vaccines, which leaves populations vulnerable to disease epidemics, is “driven mainly by misinformation and rumour”.

So why is this happening? The Guardian says confidence in vaccinations “appears to have been dropping at least partly in response to social media misinformation and scare stories”.

The newspaper points to the continuing circulation of the “discredited claims” of Andrew Wakefield, who was banned from practicing medicine in the UK after published a paper in 1998 that linked the MMR jab to autism.

Political trends may also be responsible. A study outlined in the European Journal of Public Health earlier this year found that the growth of anti-vaccination movements directly correlates with the rise of populism across Europe.

However, Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, suspects that many parents have merely forgotten “just how serious these infections can be, and have started to think of them as simply trivial childhood infections”.

He adds: “We all lead busy lives and it might be tempting to put off a trip to the GP for convenience’s sake.”

There is also a regional dimension to the wider global trend. A study published by the Wellcome Trust in June found that richer countries have less trust in vaccinations.

The biomedical research charity reports that a global total of 79% of people still believe vaccines are safe. However, this number drops to just 59% in Western Europe. The most trusting region is South Asia, where 95% expressed confidence in the safety of vaccinations.

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