Uptake of 13 routine children’s vaccinations has declined, including both doses of the MMR, according to research published today.
The annual findings from NHS Digital show that coverage of the first dose of the MMR vaccine at 24 months is 90.3 per cent, compared with 91.2 per cent in 2017/18.
Coverage of the first dose at five years is 94.5 per cent, down from 94.9 per cent in 2017/18, while coverage of the second dose at five years is 86.4 per cent, compared with 87.2 per cent in 2017/18.
For both doses of MMR, London had the lowest coverage of all regions, with only 76.3 per cent of children receiving the second vaccination at five years in 2018/19.
Speaking to EYE about London’s low numbers, Helen Bedford, Professor of Children’s Health at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, said: ‘London has always had lower uptake than other places.
‘It is a complicated city: it’s very big, there’s a lot of mobility, a huge proportion of children have moved house by the time they are 12 months old, so that means you might be in one GP system and you move to another area but you’re not in their records.’
Significantly, no regions in England exceeded the national target of 95 per cent for the first dose of MMR at 24 months, or the second dose at five years.
Herd immunity, which creates resistance to the spread of contagious diseases by ensuring a sufficiently high proportion of the population is vaccinated, is generally established as being a vaccination rate of 95 per cent of the population. The latest statistics therefore show that coverage of MMR is falling below required levels of vaccination.
Other vaccines are also showing a decline in uptake, such as the ‘5-in-1’ which protects against viruses including diphtheria, tetanus and polio. Coverage of this vaccine at a national level has declined in each of the past six years, following a peak in 2012/13.
Vaccinations for rotavirus, which results in a highly infectious stomach bug, pneumococcal, which can lead to pneumonia, septicaemia and meningitis, and Hib/MenC and MenB, which can lead to septicaemia and meningitis, also showed a decline in coverage between 2017/18 and 2018/19.
Childhood influenza was the only vaccination to show an increase in coverage. In 2018/19, the coverage was 43.8 per cent for two-year-olds, compared with 43.3 per cent in 2017/18. For three-year-olds, the coverage was 45.9 per cent in 2018/19, compared with 44.7 per cent in 2017/18.
Prof Bedford said: ‘Obviously, it’s a concern that the figures have come down. There has been a gradual decline over the last five years, each year a couple of points of a percentage, but the reason is a combination of factors.’
Prof Bedford cited anti-vax sentiment as being responsible for this trend, as well as NHS reforms that have reduced funding for public health, a decline in health visitors and pressures on primary care.
She continued: ‘We can reverse this, there’s no question that we can. We need to otherwise children are going to be badly affected.
‘We’re already seeing measles outbreaks and it doesn’t take a big decline in vaccine uptake to start seeing outbreaks of measles. It’s almost an early warning system that things aren’t right.’
She explained that vaccination services need to be more ‘innovative’ about where they offer their services, perhaps considering schools, children’s centres or even supermarkets. She also said that reminders are a proven and effective means of contacting parents about upcoming vaccinations.
Matt Hancock, Health and Social Care Secretary, said: ‘Falling childhood vaccination rates are unacceptable. Everyone has a role to play in halting this decline.
‘The loss of our measles free status is a stark reminder that devastating diseases can, and will, resurface. We need to be bold and I will not rule out action so that every child is properly protected.’
Why has the MMR vaccination been appearing in the news?
The UK recently lost its measles-free status, after it was revealed there had been 230 cases of the infection in the first quarter of this year. The situation has grown worse recently, as 301 new measles infections were confirmed between April and June.
The Government is calling for anyone who has failed to be inoculated, or only had one dose, to seek out a course of the vaccination as soon as possible.