Prime minister Boris Johnson will visit a hospital in the South West today where he will set out measures designed to improve vaccination rates, including for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR).
While uptake for most vaccinations including MMR exceeds 90%, the Department for Health and Social Care says there has been a small but steady decline in coverage in recent years.
It means that the UK has lost its “measles-free” status with the World Health Organisation (WHO) – three years after the virus was eliminated in the country. The WHO have stated that in the first six months of 2019 reported measles cases globally are almost three times as many as the same time last year. Measles is now endemic in countries including France, Germany and Italy.
The prime minister will call on health leaders to renew their efforts to meet 95% for both doses of MMR. Currently just 87% of children are getting their second dose of the jab, which has likely contributed to the spread of measles.
Measles elimination status means that the virus is no longer circulating permanently in a country. The UK achieved "measles-free" status in 2016 after three years of limited spread due to high vaccination rates, but measles has since been spreading slowly in the UK for over 12 months.
In the first quarter of 2019, there were 231 confirmed cases of measles in the UK. Many of these were acquired abroad with some onward spread in under-vaccinated communities.
The Department for Health’s revised vaccine strategy to be published in the Autumn is expected to ask the NHS to use technology to identify who may have missed a vaccination and make booking appointments easier, such as improved call/recall systems for those accessing immunisations, and more consistent use of these systems across UK healthcare to remind people of their vaccine appointments.
Part of the GP contract review will examine wider questions of improving GP capacity to allow additional immunisation appointments – while also asking NHS England to consider other settings outside of a GP for vaccinations.
Immediate action to achieve 95% MMR uptake includes:
- NHS England writing to GPs urging them to promote “catch up" vaccination programmes for MMR for 10-11 year olds, as well as all those 5-25 year olds who have not had two doses of the jab;
- Strengthening the role of local immunisation coordinators – healthcare professionals that promote vaccines particularly with hard-to-reach families. This includes supporting areas with low uptake and tailoring specific local interventions to under-vaccinated communities;
- Addressing parents’ concerns about vaccines by updating the advice on NHS.uk specifically to address misleading information about the dangers of vaccines, by giving people NHS-approved, evidence-based and trusted advice on vaccines including through a new website;
- Calling a summit of social media companies to discuss how they can play their part in promoting accurate information about vaccination; and
- The Department for Health and Social Care – working with Public Health England and NHS England – delivering a comprehensive strategy to address the issue in the Autumn.
Ahead of the hospital visit Mr Johnson said: "After a period of progress where we were once able to declare Britain measles free, we’ve now seen hundreds of cases of measles in the UK this year. One case of this horrible disease is too many, and I am determined to step up our efforts to tackle its spread.
"This is a global challenge and there’s a number of reasons why people don’t get themselves or their children the vaccines they need, but we need decisive action across our health service and society to make sure communities are properly immunised.
"From reassuring parents about the safety of vaccines, to making sure people are attending follow-up appointments, we can and must do more to halt the spread of infectious, treatable diseases in modern-day Britain."
Head of immunisation at Public Health England Dr Mary Ramsay said: "Losing our ‘measles-free’ status is a stark reminder of how important it is that every eligible person gets vaccinated. Elimination can only be sustained by maintaining and improving coverage of the MMR vaccine."