Thousands of children at risk as vaccination rates fall in England

<span>Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Thousands of children face an increased risk of catching deadly diseases in England, and significant outbreaks are likely, child health experts have warned, as “alarming” figures show vaccination levels have plunged across virtually all jabs.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is urging parents and guardians to ensure their children have received the routine jabs against potentially serious diseases, such as polio and measles, after official data revealed a drop in vaccination rates.

NHS Digital data published on Thursday showed vaccine coverage fell in 13 out of the 14 routine programmes for children up to five years old in England in 2021-22, compared with the year before.

“Today’s publication of the childhood vaccination statistics in England is extremely worrying,” said Dr Doug Brown, the chief executive of the British Society for Immunology. “Immediate action to reverse this alarming multi-year downward trend and protect our communities from preventable diseases is urgently needed.”

Health officials said disruption caused by the pandemic was likely to have led to a drop in vaccination rates. UKHSA said it was important that child vaccine coverage increased as soon as possible to the 95% level recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) to prevent the spread of serious and deadly diseases.

The NHS Digital report found 89.2% of children at 24 months had completed their first dose of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, a drop from 90.3% in 2020-21.

In 2021-22, 85.7% of children had received their second dose of MMR vaccine by their fifth birthday, falling from 86.6% in the previous year.

Helen Bedford, a professor of child public health at UCL’s Institute of Child Health, said the country was now facing “the concerning double whammy of many children being unprotected and the inevitability of disease rates increasing”.

“In this situation, as night follows day, significant outbreaks of disease are likely. Measles disease is a particular concern as it is so highly infectious that any small decline in vaccine uptake results in outbreaks.

“Fortunately, it is never too late to be vaccinated. Vaccination works, is highly effective and has an excellent safety record. No child needs to face the potentially serious consequences of a vaccine preventable disease.”

Figures also showed that coverage for the six-in-one/five-in-one vaccine – which protects against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, diseases caused by Haemophilus influenzae type b and hepatitis B – decreased among children aged 12 months, 24 months and five years.

Reportedly, 91.8% of children had completed their primary course of three doses of the six-in-one at 12 months in 2021-22, down from 92% in 2020-21.

Dr Vanessa Saliba, a consultant epidemiologist at UKHSA, said: “Measles is highly contagious and can be dangerous, and it is extremely worrying that we are seeing levels of uptake of the MMR vaccine falling among young children. It is also vitally important that children get their polio vaccinations to help prevent the risk of paralysis.

“I would urge parents to check that all children are up to date with their vaccines, and if not to get them booked in as soon as possible to make sure they have maximum protection against what can be terrible diseases.”

Health officials sounded the alarm earlier this year over the rising number of polio samples found in sewage in London.

It sparked a drive to vaccinate almost a million children aged one to nine across the capital against the disease, which can cause paralysis in rare cases and can be life-threatening.

The UKHSA said that to date no clinical cases of polio have been identified, but health services have been urged to remain vigilant to any cases of paralysis in children.