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UK sees disease outbreak risk as child vaccination rates drop

LONDON (Reuters) – Rates of protection for children in England from many serious but vaccine-preventable diseases dropped in the past year in what UK health officials said was a “concerning trend” that increases the risk of outbreaks.

FILE PHOTO: A measles poster is seen at Venice Family Clinic in Los Angeles, California February 5, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

The figures follow a warning from the World Health Organization (WHO) last month that Britain had now lost its “measles-free” status, three years after the virus was eliminated there. Measles infected more than 230 people in the UK in the first quarter of 2019.

Data from Public Health England (PHE) showed that coverage of all 13 routine childhood vaccinations for the under-fives was down by between 0.2% and 1.0%.

Coverage with the first dose of the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles mumps and rubella, was down to 90.3% in England in 2019, from 91.2% in 2018 – the fifth annual decrease in a row.

“Although these changes are small proportions, these are big drops in terms of public health,” said Mary Ramsay, PHE’s head of immunisation. “The trend is a concerning continuation of what we’ve seen in the last five years.”

A global study published earlier this year found that eroding confidence in vaccines – driven mainly by misinformation and rumor – is leaving populations vulnerable to disease epidemics. The spread of measles, including in major outbreaks in the United States, the Philippines and Ukraine, is just one of the health risks linked to lower confidence in vaccines.

Ramsay urged parents to recognize the value of the “life-saving offer” of vaccination. “No parent should be in any doubt of the devastating impact of these diseases,” she said.

Jonathan Kennedy, a specialist in global public health at Queen Mary University of London, warned that “when vaccination rates for measles fall below 90-95% of the population, there will be outbreaks.”

Public health experts and the WHO say vaccines save up to 3 million lives every year worldwide, and decades of research evidence consistently shows they are safe and effective.

Jonathan Ball, a virology expert at Nottingham University, said some parents seem unaware of how dangerous viral infections like measles and mumps can be. “The importance of getting our children immunized cannot be overstated,” he said.

Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Toby Chopra

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