It is now 50 years since the measles vaccine was introduced in the UK, and 30 since the combined measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine came on stream. It is estimated that 20 million measles cases and 4,500 deaths have been prevented since 1968.
But that success story is under threat. Childhood vaccination coverage in 2017-2018 declined in nine of the 12 routine vaccinations measured at ages 12 months, 24 months or five years in England compared to the previous year. Coverage for the MMR vaccine as measured at two years decreased in 2017-18 for the fourth year in a row. Uptake for this vaccine is now at 91.2%, the lowest it has been since 2011-12. There is an expectation that UK coverage for all routine childhood immunisations evaluated up to five years of age should achieve 95%.
Perhaps measles is not seen as the threat it once was. The World Health Organization announced in 2017 that the elimination of measles had been achieved in the UK for the first time. This means the disease is no longer native to the UK, although there are still small clusters, many of which are brought in from overseas.
While parents trust nurses, it is however evident that fake news about the vaccine is still being disseminated online, often via social media, providing a platform for those in the anti-vaccination movement to promote mistaken claims. Even the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) has recently had to explain that the myths spread by anti-vaccine campaigners are absolutely wrong.
These myths may be the reason why MMR uptake has been so low. Despite achieving the elimination of measles in the UK there is no space for complacency as there have been several large outbreaks of measles across Europe. We need to ensure that the eradication of measles in the UK is sustained by maintaining and improving coverage of the MMR vaccine in children, as well as by catching up older children and young adults who have missed out.
It is essential to understand fully the reasons why there has been a decline in vaccination coverage and to develop strategies to take steps to improve it. Addressing public misinformation about vaccines is key to the future success of any public health campaign.
The nurse is key to this important public health initiative as they work with patients, families and communities reinforcing evidence based advice and offering support in innovate and creative ways, countering myth with the message that vaccinations are safe, they are effective and they are essential to safeguarding health and the health of our children. Any death that is the result of measles is one death too many.