The MMR vaccine should be given to all unvaccinated schoolchildren aged from 10 to 16 as part of a national catch-up campaign, the government has announced.
This MMR vaccination catch-up campaign aims to prevent further measles outbreaks, following recent outbreaks in Wales.
Speaking at the launch of the national MMR catch-up programme, Professor David Salisbury, director of immunisation at the Department of Health, said that the outbreaks in Wales had been "a wake-up call for parents", and warned that "what is happening in Swansea could happen anywhere in England".
Professor Salisbury urged parents to get their children vaccinated with MMR if they were unsure whether they had previously had the jab.
Why is a catch-up programme required?
A catch-up programme is required to protect a generation of children, born between 1997 and 2003, who are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated against measles.
Low levels of vaccination in this generation were caused by an unsubstantiated scare about the MMR vaccine. The scare was based on an entirely discredited piece of research that claimed that MMR could trigger autism.
Targeting this group of children, estimated to be around one million, will help reduce the potential population in which further measles outbreaks could occur.
Why is measles a threat now?
Due to the success of earlier vaccination programmes measles was extremely rare during the 1990s.
This began to change after researcher Andrew Wakefield published a piece of research claiming that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and the developmental condition autism. Despite serious flaws in this research, it received widespread coverage in the media. The research has been proven to be worthless and Wakefield has been struck off the medical register for acting "dishonestly and irresponsibly" in his research and “bringing the medical profession into disrepute”.
Sadly, the damage had already been done – there was a drop in coverage rates (the proportion of people vaccinated against a disease) for measles and this has led to the disease becoming more widespread. In the first quarter of 2013, there were a record 587 cases in England and, worryingly, a number of outbreaks in schools.
Many people mistakenly assume that measles is a harmless childhood disease like chickenpox. This is not the case. Immunisation expert, Dr Mary Ramsey, said: “Measles is not a mild illness – it is very unpleasant and can lead to serious complications as we have seen with more than 100 children in England being hospitalised so far this year”.
Complications of measles include:
- hearing loss, which may be partial or total
- learning difficulties, which may be temporary or permanent
- epilepsy – a condition that causes someone to have repeated fits
- cerebral palsy – a general term for a set of conditions that affect movement and co-ordination
- vision loss, which may be partial or total
How will the catch-up programme work?
Around a million at-risk children have been identified using GP records and similar data. Letters are to be sent to their parents recommending that they get their children vaccinated.
Vaccination can take place at GP clinics. There are also plans to set up temporary ‘vaccine clinics’ in schools, community centres and similar locations.
The programme will also be publicised in schools and on Facebook: Get Vaccinated England and Twitter at #gethemmr. The government hopes that the catch-up programme will be completed by the start of the new school year in September.
How accurate is the data being used by the programme?
It is thought that the data is both accurate and robust, and that the at-risk children have been identified. Even if a child is wrongly identified as being unvaccinated, receiving extra doses of the MMR vaccine will do them absolutely no harm.
Can I get my child vaccinated now?
Yes. You do not have to wait to be sent a letter to get your child vaccinated. If you are worried about your child’s vaccination status make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible.