By Helen Stokes-Lampard
In the early 2000s, after the link between the MMR vaccine and autism was thoroughly debunked, healthcare professionals, including GPs and our teams, worked hard to re-establish public confidence in vaccinations. It took years to restore, but uptake rates in children receiving the MMR vaccine began to improve and there was a time, not so long ago, when we thought we had eradicated measles entirely.
That is why recent data about the surge in measles cases across Europe will come as distressing news – even to us here in the UK. However, it backs up concerns that were published last month in the British Journal of General Practice. The World Health Organization has reported that a total of 41,000 people in the European region were infected in the first six months of 2018 – up from 23,927 cases in 2017 and 5,273 in 2016. Of the cases reported so far this year, 37 deaths have been recorded.
The rapid spread of measles across Europe is an inevitable consequence of lower uptakes of the MMR vaccine globally, and the particularly virulent nature of this disease and how easily it can spread. It has put the UK on high alert and prompted warnings about the risk of measles spreading here, but it has also put the need for a strong, consistent vaccination campaign high on the political agenda.
Getting the public invested in the benefits of vaccination is key to its success
Vaccination is one of the great successes of modern medicine so it is tragic that a decade after the MMR scandal was thoroughly exposed, we are still suffering from the setbacks of the 1990s. While uptake rates of the vaccine are high in the UK, this year’s outbreak of more than 800 confirmed measles cases in England shows that we are still in dangerous territory. Many of the cases reported will be a direct result of susceptible teenagers and young adults who missed their MMR vaccine as children. Another reason for the outbreak is people travelling in and out of Europe, and mixing with groups of people with low rates of vaccination.
As a society, we have collectively failed to adequately tackle the strong anti-vaccination movement which continues to influence some parents.
In general practice, we have been working to reassure worried parents on a one-to-one basis that the vaccine is safe for their children, and while we are very pleased with the trust parents have shown in it so far, it is clear that the message is still not getting through universally. False information about MMR continues to be spread online, particularly on social media, giving a platform to the anti-vaccination movement to push erroneous claims.
Some of the posts have hundreds of thousands of “likes” and include false claims that healthcare professionals have been lying to the public or that immunisation injections amount to nothing more than “poison being pumped into people’s bloodstreams”.
A lack of regulation and enforcement around this material online has allowed these groups to build momentum without the opportunity for any form of meaningful evidence-based rebuttal.
Tackling public misinformation about vaccines is crucial to the future success of any campaign. We need to counter this with the message that vaccinations are safe, effective and essential to safeguarding our health and that of our children. Getting the public invested in the benefits of vaccination is key to its success and this must be tackled with a society-wide approach.
People develop life-changing complications from measles. People die from this entirely preventable infection. That is a tragedy that must be prevented.
Any death from measles is one life too much. Vaccinations take only a moment but they can protect for life.
Helen Stokes-Lampard is a GP in Lichfield and chair of the Royal College of GPs. This article was originally published in The Guardian.