If you’re going to be heading off to university this autumn, Public Health England (PHE) wants you to make sure that you’ve had your measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
“If you’re going to university, now’s the time to catch up if you missed out as a child,” said Dr. Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England.
It’s because of a rise in the numbers of cases of mumps and measles in the UK — with the government health agency warning in a statement on Friday that lecture halls and halls of residence at universities are a great place for viruses like mumps to spread.
In the first three months of 2019 alone, there were 795 reported cases of mumps, according to PHE — compared to 1,031 in the whole of 2018. And the warning highlights that outbreaks have been reported in some universities.
“Mumps cases tend to increase every three years in environments with close mixing such as festivals and universities,” says the PHE statement.
Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham saw a large outbreak of mumps at the beginning of the year, according to the BBC.
People starting at university this year were generally born around the time that a now completely debunked myth was circulating that the MMR vaccine could be linked to autism. The doctor who led the study has now been discredited and struck off.
In the late 1990s, rates of MMR coverage in the UK dropped to about 80%, according to the BBC, and hit a low of 79% in 2003.
You should have had two doses of the MMR vaccine, for it to be as effective as possible. One dose is about 90-95% effective at preventing measles, for example, but after a second dose the level of protection is about 99%.
Currently, coverage of the second dose is about 87%, according to PHE. But to achieve what’s known as “herd immunity” — essentially when enough people are vaccinated that it increases resistance to the spread of a contagious disease — at least 90-95% of the population needs to be fully protected.
If you’re in any doubt about your vaccination status, PHE is urging you to get in touch with your GP to double check and get vaccinated if need be — because even one person missing the vaccine is “too many.”
According to the NHS, measles, mumps, and rubella are highly infectious conditions that can have serious, potentially fatal complications, including meningitis, swelling of the brain (encephalitis), and deafness.
They can also lead to complications in pregnancy that affect the unborn baby, and can lead to miscarriage, it adds.
As well as a reported increase in cases of mumps, measles outbreaks have also been reported in London, the North West, and the East of England — with 231 cases reported in the first quarter of 2019, according to PHE.
Most recent measles cases are occurring in under-vaccinated communities, it adds, but there have also been some spread into the wider population, such as those who may have missed out on the MMR vaccine when younger.
According to Public Health Minister Seema Kennedy, the MMR vaccine was introduced over 30 years ago and, since then, the “world-leading vaccination programme is estimated to have prevented 1.8 million painful and potentially fatal cases of measles.”
“No child or young person should have to suffer from mumps, measles, or rubella, and we must curb this recent increase in cases so we don’t see a return of horrible diseases of the past,” she said. “By taking up the MMR vaccine, parents and young people can prevent more cases and I would urge everybody to do so.”
Last month, during World Immunisation Week, Ramsay warned about the internet and social media being used to spread “inaccurate” claims about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
“It’s vital that all websites and social media platforms ensure accurate coverage of public health issues like vaccines,” she said, referring to concerns that the anti-vaxx movement is using social media to target parents.
“We cannot be complacent, as even small groups of children missing out on or delaying their vaccines leaves them and others vulnerable to serious or even fatal infections,” she added.
Meanwhile, Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has also called for new laws to be introduced to force social media companies to take down content that shares false information about vaccines.