The number of two-year-olds getting the MMR jab, the triple measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, is at its highest level since 1998, after years of worrying measles and mumps outbreaks among teenagers and young adults.
More than nine in 10 infants under 24 months across the UK have had their first jab against the highly infectious viral diseases for the first time since the now discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield suggested a link between the jab and autism.
The controversy so undermined public confidence that vaccination rates fell to dangerously low levels – with then prime minister Tony Blair being quizzed repeatedly in 2001 as to whether his son Leo had had the jab. The MMR has never been compulsory in the UK, unlike the US where children have to have the jab before they go to school.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and six English regions (north-east, north-west, Yorkshire and the Humber, east Midlands, West Midlands and south central) achieved at least 90% coverage among under-twos between January and March this year, according to a report by Justin McCracken, chief executive of the government’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) that will be presented to the board on Wednesday.
Experts recommend the first inoculation when a child is around 13 months old. Uptake of the second booster jab between the ages of just under three and five, now stands at 85.1%.
Mary Ramsay, head of the agency’s immunisation department, told the Guardian a mixture of changing attitudes in parents and greater focus by health professionals on chasing up those who had not been inoculated had helped improve take-up.
“The aim now is getting it as high as possible and keeping it as high as possible. If we can get coverage up at two and five years we still need to keep up with (unvaccinated) people before they leave school. Once they leave school they are quite difficult to get hold of.”
There were 654 cases of measles confirmed in England and Wales in the first six months of 2011, more than the 374 for the whole of 2010, and coinciding with Europe-wide outbreaks which saw 21,000 cases reported in the first six months of the year, with France badly hit.
London and southern England, where MMR uptake is lowest, accounted for just under two-thirds of cases. There were probably more than reported since about 80 likely cases among unvaccinated children at unnamed schools in the south-east were not tested because of objections from parents.
Most new reported cases were among under 19s, the vast majority unvaccinated.
The MMR was introduced in the UK in 1988 and by 1996 once-feared diseases it inoculates against seemed in long-term decline. That year there were 112 confirmed measles cases in England and Wales, plus 94 of mumps and 3,922 of rubella.
Figures have fluctuated since then, although mumps and measles cases are still far more numerous than 15 years ago. The worst recent year for measles was 2008 when there were 1,370 cases, while there was a massive surge in mumps to 43,378 in 2005.
This led to campaigns by health specialists to get previously unvaccinated teenagers inoculated. There have been fewer than 100 rubella cases each year for a decade however. The vaccine component against this disease affords most protection of the three.
MMR inoculation rates have risen since they reached a low point of around 80% of two-year-olds having had the jab in England during 2003-4, when the figure for London dipped to just seven in 10. London, where the population is far more mobile than most parts of the country, still lags with just 83.3% of two-year-olds having had the jab according to figures for the first three months of this year.
Wakefield first suggested the MMR and autism link in 1998 but it was about three years before his theory received widespread media coverage.
Gradually health departments and public health specialists have managed to persuade most parents they should take the MMR and not leave their children unvaccinated or rely on single vaccines obtainable only through private clinics.
When Wakefield, who had spent most of his working time in the US, was banned by the General Medical Council from practising in the UK last year – for offences related to dishonesty and not acting in the best interests of children – he portrayed himself as a victim of the medical establishment.