It seems like many preventable childhood illnesses, such as measles and pertussis, have been making an unfortunate comeback recently. From January to March 2013 alone, over 500 measles cases have been recorded in England (compare this to the 2011 figures from the whole of the UK- 334). In all of 2010, there were only 374 cases. Sadly, this seems to suggest that Britain’s problems with vaccine-preventable illnesses are only growing. In a country with a commendable public health service where vaccinations are free, the numbers should be falling- but they are not.
21st century life has allowed us to live in a bubble of relative safety regarding such illnesses- herd immunity has allowed even those who are not vaccinated to live without fear of contracting measles, mumps and rubella. Unfortunately, this has allowed us to forget that such illnesses can be fatal- that’s why we started vaccinating against them in the first place. Herein lies the problem: the public have been led to believe that it is safer to forego vaccinations due to the risks that they may pose. This has led to many children of the last decade not having been vaccinated against such childhood killers.
The one name which comes up consistently in this debate is Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 study appeared to show a link between the MMR vaccination and the development of autism in young children. The study was wildly innacurate- being conducted with conflicts of interest, on a tiny group of test subjects, and being subject to cherry picking- but despite this, his findings caused many parents to doubt the safety and efficacy of the MMR vaccine (NB: his paper in the Lancet has since been retracted, and he is no longer allowed to practice medicine in the UK). It is therefore deeply frustrating that there are still people who lend credence to his ideas, and allow their children not to be vaccinated.
This backwards step for public health has sadly not been confined to the UK- across the pond in the USA, Jenny McCarthy and her army of anti-vaxxers have been working their evil magic. Of course she is not single-handedly causing every vaccine-preventable disease, but she is dedicated to the anti-vaccination movement and is convinced that a childhood vaccination caused her child’s autism. Check out the current Jenny McCarthy Body Count webpage for further information about her quest.
However, it is not the individual cases of such diseases that are the most concerning- are the dropping levels of herd immunity in societies where they should be very high. Herd immunity is perhaps a surprisingly simple concept- those who are healthy receive the vaccinations so that those unable to be vaccinated are still safe from disease. This may include those who are too young to be vaccinated, or who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons. It is estimated that vaccination uptake must be around 95% in order to maintain the necessary level of herd immunity, but the figure for England in 2009 was just 85%. However, it isn’t all doom and gloom- between 2011 and 2012, 91% of under-5s received the first dose of the MMR vaccine, which is an increase from previous years.
And more good news! For those of you in the UK, it has recently been announced that there will be a national MMR vaccine catch-up for those who have not been vaccinated, or for those who did not complete the vaccination programme. This is largely aimed at 10-16 year olds who missed out on vaccination in the late 90s and early 00s when Wakefield was causing so much controversy in the UK. Back then, measles had been eliminated in Britain- but in 2007, it became re-established, making it crucial that those who missed the MMR as a child should get it now. If you have never been vaccinated, speak to your GP about this catch-up programme and they may be able to point you in the right direction. And please bear in mind, if you have children currently or in future- ensuring that they are properly vaccinated is the best thing for their own health, and the health of the entire country.
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