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BY Jessica Culnane

Healthcare

MMR Vaccine Uptake Plummets: Another Post-Pandemic Hangover?

Worries about the COVID vaccine and pressures on the NHS have had knock-on effects on MMR vaccine uptake, posing a risk to public health.

FEBRUARY 04  2022

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This week the UK Health Security Agency has launched a new campaign warning parents and guardians to vaccinate their children against Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR). It comes as alarming data is released showing that the MMR vaccine uptake has plummeted to the lowest level in a decade.

Among eligible five-year-olds in England, 93.7% have had one dose. However, just 85.5% are fully protected with two doses. This is compared to 94.3% in 2020, and 94.5% in 2019. Not only is the rapid pace of this decline unprecedented, but more importantly it is highly dangerous. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that, to prevent a resurgence of Measles, vaccination rates need to remain around 95%. Experts have warned that vaccination rates only need to drop a little below 90% to have very serious implications.

Measles is a highly contagious disease – more contagious than COVID-19. If exposed and unvaccinated, nearly 9 out of 10 people can catch it. Professor Liam Smeeth, physician and director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, likened measles to ‘a jam jar full of wasps that is raging to get out. The minute vaccine coverage drops, measles will reappear’. It is an uncomfortable disease, presenting with a distinctive rash, diarrhoea, and vomiting. But it can also lead to severe complications. This includes pneumonia, brain inflammation, ear infections, and long-term disabilities. On rare occasions, it can also be fatal.

The MMR vaccine is the most effective measure to protect children and adults against catching the disease. It equips children with 99% protection and has been around for over 50 years – a testament to its safety.

Why are vaccination rates plummeting?

The reason for the stark decline in vaccine uptake is most likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the pandemic has catalysed two trends that experts speculate are deterring parents and guardians from vaccinating their children.

Firstly, the conspicuous impact of the pandemic on the healthcare sector, both throughout and in the aftermath of the pandemic, may have misled parents and guardians to believe that their children were unable to access the vaccine. This reflects a larger issue within the healthcare system. Throughout the pandemic, it was no secret that the NHS was under increased strain, with waiting times in emergency departments were nine times higher in 2021 than they were pre-pandemic in 2019 and the ever-growing waiting list for routine appointments hitting almost 6 million. It is likely that the true impact of this heightened strain will be identified in the coming years.

The MMR vaccine drop, and the imminent possibility of a resurgence in measles as a result, is a significant by-product – but this could be just one of many. For example, the HPV vaccine also experienced a drastic plummet – by 50% – due to school closures.

 

Anti-vax sentiment

Secondly, there is little doubt that the dissemination and popularisation of vaccine hesitancy surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out has spilt over into other routine vaccinations. Professor Smeeth expressed concern that vaccine hesitancy around COVID-19 was ‘creeping into’ the sentiment towards other vaccines – including the MMR vaccine. He said, ‘I’m concerned it’s making people think: “oh, well, maybe the measles vaccine isn’t great either, and maybe these other vaccines aren’t great”.’

The MMR vaccine has been around for over 50 years, with studies consistently confirming its efficacy on reducing the incidence of Measles, Mumps, and Rubella whilst also being extremely safe. However, it is no stranger to vaccine hesitancy. The infamous, condemned, and widely discredited claim by Andrew Wakefield, that the MMR vaccine was associated with autism, has clouded the MMR vaccine in anti-vaccination sentiment for the last two decades. This has been linked to several outbreaks and resurgences since its eradication in the UK and US two decades ago – a testament to the impact drops in vaccine uptake can have.

This suggests that the propensity for vaccine hesitancy may already be higher than average for the MMR vaccine. The widespread circulation of anti-vax materials has likely sparked a resurgence in reluctance to vaccinate children against MMR.

 

Post-pandemic medicine

Although the MMR vaccine uptake has dropped by almost 10% since 2019, the incidence of measles remains lower than in previous years. This is likely a by-product of social distancing measures – something that has suppressed the spread of many other diseases alongside COVID-19.

However, as these restrictions ease, the consequences could be serious. International travel could present the largest risk as the prevalence of measles remains high in other countries. It’s highly contagious nature means that it can metastasize easily if brought back to the UK where vaccination rates are low.

It is important that the government tackle this early on to prevent this becoming a serious issue. The efficacy of the vaccine must be publicised and evidence publicised that confirms the vaccine is safe. This must also be treated as a harbinger for healthcare in the coming years – with preventative measures such as vaccines and routine appointments being dramatically suppressed for the last two years, post-pandemic medicine will likely be defined by emergency treatment and crisis management. The government must recognise this and allocate resources and plan accordingly.

 

 

About the author: Jessica Culnane is a contributing Features Writer with in-depth knowledge of policy, politics, and economics. She’s interested in technological advancements, business developments, data, and culture.

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