PM Calls for action to Improve Childhood Vaccination Rates

Peter Russell

August 19, 2019

Urgent action to increase the proportion of children and young people receiving routine vaccinations was announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Downing Street said that despite high levels of confidence in the childhood immunisation programme, there had been a small but steady decline in take-up rates in recent years.

One consequence of the reduction in coverage was that the UK had lost its measles-free status with the World Health Organisation (WHO), 3 years after the virus was eliminated in this country. The WHO stated that in the first 6 months of 2019 reported cases of measles globally were almost three times as many as the same time last year.

Provisional data for 2018 showed there were 970 cases of measles in England, up from 266 the previous year.

In the first quarter of 2019, there were 231 confirmed cases of measles in the UK as a whole. Many of these were acquired abroad with some onward spread in under-vaccinated communities.

Public Health England (PHE) said new figures suggested that around 1 in 7 five-year-olds might not be fully up to date with routine vaccinations.

'We Can and Must Do More': Boris Johnson

Ahead of a visit to a hospital in the South West, Mr Johnson called for health leaders to renew their efforts to meet 95% coverage for both doses of MMR. Currently only 87% of children are getting their second dose of the MMR vaccine, which Downing Street said was likely to have contributed to the increase of measles cases.

"From reassuring parents about the safety of vaccines, to making sure people are attending follow-up appointments, we can and must do more to halt the spread of infectious, treatable diseases in modern-day Britain," Mr Johnson said.

Prof Dame Sally Davies, England's chief medical officer, tweeted that vaccines were "among our most important weapons against many infectious diseases" and that measures being announced would "be vital in protecting children against diseases like measles".

Vaccine Strategy

The Government trailed a strategy to be unveiled in the autumn by the Department of Health and Social Care which it said would:

  • Ask the NHS to use technology to identify who may have missed a vaccination and to make booking appointments easier, such as improved call/recall systems for those accessing immunisations

  • Consider improving GP capacity to allow additional immunisation appointments, while also asking NHS England to look into other settings for vaccinations

  • Develop a major campaign with NHS England and NHS Improvement, Public Health England, and GP practices to support the importance of key vaccinations

  • Work with the Department for Education to explore more ways in which students could be informed about their health and wellbeing, including the value of vaccinations, and advice on how to spot online misinformation about vaccines

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, pledged: "With this strategy, the whole health system will come together to renew focus on vaccinations – especially for our children – and this time we will eliminate measles for good."

The new figures from PHE suggested that in England:

  • Around 1 in 19 five-year-olds might still need to receive their first dose of MMR

  • Around 1 in 7 five-year-olds in England might still need to receive their second dose of MMR

  • Around 1 in 8 five-year-olds in England might still need their 4-in-1 pre-school booster that protects against diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, and polio

PHE said that overall, more than 5% of five-year-olds would be starting reception year this autumn having not received any MMR doses.

Dr Mary Ramsay, PHE's head of immunisation, commented: "It’s a real concern that so many young children – as many as a quarter of a reception class in some areas – could be starting school without the full protection that the NHS childhood immunisation programme offers for free.

"We know that parents want the best protection for their children and so many may be unaware that their child is not up-to-date.

"We're urging all parents of primary school starters to check their child's red book now to make sure there is a record of two MMR doses and the 4-in-1 booster vaccine."

Misinformation About Vaccines

The Royal College of GPs (RCGP) called for a concerted effort to tackle misinformation about vaccines which was undermining confidence in them.

Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, RCGP chair, said: "We welcome that the Government is addressing the falling take-up of childhood vaccinations seriously – and are particularly pleased to see that they are involving social media companies in their strategy, given the deeply concerning and misleading school of thought, especially prevalent online and across social media, that casts doubt over the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

"It is not just the responsibility of GPs and other healthcare professionals to combat 'anti-vaxxer' propaganda, everyone has a part to play: health, public health, and education bodies; but we also need technology companies to take responsibility and tackle negativity and confusion around vaccination information."

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