Middle-class parents who want the best for their children are being deceived by ‘fake news’ about the supposed dangers of vaccines, the head of the NHS warns today.
Simon Stevens says school gates have become ‘breeding grounds’ for toxic myths about childhood jabs.
He says well-meaning parents are spreading ‘harmful rumours’ about jabs – particularly MMR – and affecting others’ judgment.
In a stark intervention, he claims shunning the lifesaving immunisations is like not telling children ‘to look left and right before crossing the street’.
Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England, says school gates have become ‘breeding grounds’ for toxic myths about childhood jabs (stock image)
In some areas, particularly in London, one child in three is not receiving the two jabs necessary for full MMR immunity (pictured the MMR vaccine)
Writing for today’s Daily Mail, Mr Stevens warns that some devoted parents may be unintentionally causing harm to their sons and daughters.
‘Vaccine-hesitant parents are not just those who are unaware of immunisation but actually those who have sought out, often online, some additional information – and no doubt reassurance – about vaccinations,’ he says.
The Mail launched a major campaign this week to improve the uptake of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) jab and other childhood jabs.
It comes after a recent Government report showed vaccination rates had fallen across the board, including for measles, polio, meningitis and whooping cough.
Health officials are particularly concerned about the uptake of the MMR, which is at its lowest level in seven years for the full two doses just as measles is on the rise.
In Kensington & Chelsea (pictured), where the average salary is £123,000 (the highest in the UK), 33 per cent of children have not received both MMR jabs
The Mail is urging the Government to launch a mass publicity drive to reassure the public these vaccines are safe and crucially, lifesaving.
Yesterday we exposed how some of the wealthiest areas in the country have surprisingly low uptakes, including Kensington and Chelsea in west London and parts of Surrey.
Mr Stevens, who has been chief executive of NHS England since 2014, explains: ‘Cruelly, it can be parents who go the extra mile to try to do the right thing and make an informed decision who are liable to stumble on and be deceived by fake news. In this way the school gates themselves can be a breeding ground for harmful myths to catch on, spread and ultimately infect parents’ judgment.’
Experts believe many parents are being put off the childhood immunisations by a growing presence of the ‘anti-vaxx’ lobby on social media.
Some of these activists refer to a 1998 study by disgraced ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield, which linked the MMR jab to autism. Wakefield’s findings were later ruled to be ‘utterly false’ and he was struck off the medical register in 2010.
But Mr Stevens warns that Wakefield’s ‘toxic legacy’ still lingers 20 years on.
In August, the World Health Organisation declared the UK was no longer measles-free following a sudden surge in rates.
A total of 991 cases were confirmed in 2018, more than three times the number in 2017.
Measles is highly infectious and, while it usually clears up after ten days, it can sometimes lead to deafness or death.
The Mail is urging the NHS to roll out an alert system with text messages or letters reminding parents of appointments.
We urgently want to see the fall in uptake reversed, to such an extent that we hit a 95 per cent coverage across all ten childhood jabs.
This crucial figure is the World Health Organisation’s target as it ensures ‘herd immunity’ from a virus – where so few people have it that it cannot spread any further.
Measles surge is killing thousands worldwide as plummeting vaccine rates lead to an ‘alarming upsurge’
By Eleanor Hayward for the Daily Mail
Measles is staging a devastating comeback that is killing thousands of children around the globe, the World Health Organisation warned yesterday.
Plummeting vaccination rates have led to an ‘alarming upsurge in measles cases in all regions’, including the UK, experts said.
There were 364,808 cases of measles reported to the WHO in the first six months of this year – triple the amount in 2018 and the highest level since 2006.
Several countries are currently battling deadly outbreaks, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 4,000 people have died of measles already this year.
Plummeting vaccination rates have led to an ‘alarming upsurge in measles cases in all regions’, including the UK, experts said (stock image of child with measles rash)
Yesterday Dr Kate O’Brien, director of the WHO’s department of immunisation, said ‘critical gaps’ in coverage are causing ‘widespread loss of life and disability’.
Speaking at a press conference in Geneva, Dr O’Brien said the UK was an example of a high-income country where falling vaccine coverage is particularly concerning.
She said: ‘There are countries that have recently lost their measles-free status, including the Czech Republic and the UK.
‘There has been an upsurge in measles in every region of the world, both in outbreaks, the total number of cases and number of deaths.
‘The fundamental root cause of that in every country is a failure of children to be adequately vaccinated and receive both doses of the measles vaccine.’
The WHO says 95 per cent of the population must have two vaccinations – at age one and age three – to adequately protect against measles and preserve ‘herd immunity’. But latest global figures show about 86 per cent coverage with a first measles vaccine dose and less than 70 per cent for a second dose.
There has been a resurgence of measles around the world since 2016, and WHO experts said the situation was ‘alarming’.
In Europe, the number of cases in the first half of 2019 outstripped that for the whole of last year. Nearly 90,000 cases and 37 deaths were reported across 48 of the 53 countries in the European region between January and June this year.
Major outbreaks of the illness have also killed thousands in Madagascar, the Philippines, Sudan, Thailand and Ukraine.
In the UK just 90.3 per cent of children had their first dose in 2018-19, down from 91.2 per cent the year before. And just 86.4 per cent had received their second dose by their fifth birthday.
We MUST stop school gates being a breeding ground for MMR myths, says NHS England Chief Executive SIMON STEVENS
By Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, for the Daily Mail
Simon Stevens (pictured) says school gates have become ‘breeding grounds’ for toxic myths about childhood jabs
Some of the first patients to come through the doors of the NHS would have been afflicted with the polio virus, responsible for as many as 8,000 cases of paralysis and hundreds of deaths every year during the fearful epidemics of the early and mid-20th century.
At the time, the world’s solution to polio extended only to the iron lung, with public authorities offering little hope of protection – or indeed survival – once anyone was infected with this lethal disease.
Thankfully, prevention, treatment and care have come on dramatically in the 70-plus years since the NHS was founded. Only a decade after the birth of the health service, polio cases dropped dramatically as a result of the introduction of routine vaccination.
Thanks to greater public awareness, improved research and better health services, we have seen devastating conditions – including polio and smallpox – go from being a common concern for every family to relics of a bygone era.
Until recently we thought the same was true for measles. But worryingly, the World Health Organisation has announced that our country is no longer measles-free.
And just last week it was confirmed that the vaccination rate for two-year-olds getting their first MMR dose has dropped for the fifth consecutive year, hitting 90.3 per cent, leaving one in ten children at risk.
Crucially, this rate is below the 95 per cent threshold where a critical mass of people is protected, creating a ‘herd immunity’ that keeps the whole population safe. That matters, because for children who can’t be vaccinated – for example, if they are being treated for cancer – their life depends on other children having had the jab to keep infection at bay.
So getting vaccinated against killer diseases is not only safe but essential to keeping you, your family and your community healthy.
Dropped rates of vaccination mean many more people are vulnerable and exposed to risk, and all it takes for a whole society to be in danger is for one person to catch a disease and start a contagion.
The recent World Health Organisation report warned that Brits have effectively imported illness following holidays abroad.
There are, of course, complex reasons why someone may not get their child protected, with no single reason being pinpointed for the steady decline.
Over the coming year, the NHS is going to be making it easier for parents to get their children vaccinated, and GP practices continue to play a key part in vaccinating young people who have missed out.
There’s also a lively debate about whether children should be expected to be up to date with immunisations before they can start school.
But among those factors that experts cite for the drop in uptake of this simple health precaution is so-called ‘vaccine hesitancy’. In the 1990s, a concerted and discredited effort by disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield scared people into thinking vaccinations were dangerous. His toxic legacy lingers, with some still believing his pseudoscience and spurious claims.
Telling parents it’s dangerous to get vaccinated is like telling them it’s dangerous for their child to look left and right before crossing the street.
The Lancet medical journal reported recently that ‘vaccine-hesitant’ parents are not just those who are unaware of immunisation, but actually those who have sought out – often online – additional information, and no doubt reassurance, about vaccinations. This means that, cruelly, it can be parents who go the extra mile to try to do the right thing and make an informed decision – whether by doing more research online, asking their friends or fellow parents – who are liable to stumble on and be deceived by ‘fake news’.
In this way the school gates themselves can be a breeding ground for harmful myths to catch on, spread and ultimately infect parents’ judgment.
That parents’ efforts and anxiety to make the right decision for their children are jeopardised by wilful misinformation is unacceptable. Fortunately, some firms are taking action in response to my calls to both clamp down on fake news and help parents navigate to a safe haven of verified information online.
Instagram has committed to blocking content on its site that promotes demonstrably false health news, Facebook has said it will use its algorithms to make this dangerous content less prominent, Twitter is bringing in a function to direct people to legitimate health resources and Google improved its search function so it prioritises NHS information on vaccinations.
So, when people search for information on vaccinations, they get the right information first time.
With parents often taking their cue from other mums and dads, there must be a zero-tolerance approach to misinformation, while the Government’s strategy on improving vaccination levels will help to drive action.
While the National Health Service and the families we help must continue to demand more concerted action from websites to stamp out efforts to mislead mums, dads and carers, there are thankfully simple steps they can take to shut out the noise and keep children safe.
The MMR vaccine is given through two quick and pain-free jabs: one at age one and the next at three years and four months. Both doses are essential for immunity to take effect.
For any parent in doubt, the health service is making verified information more accessible: the NHS website – nhs.uk – is now a trusted source of evidence-based advice, including on the importance of vaccinations.
In a world where often so much of the focus is on new drugs and cutting-edge technology, one of the most effective tools for keeping us all safe is a simple, free jab, conveniently available at your local GP practice, which can save the life of your child or grandchild.