Three years ago, Britain proudly announced that it had eliminated measles for the first time in its history. But a toxic concoction of complacency and so-called fake news has now brought the highly infectious disease back from the brink.
There were 231 confirmed measles cases in the UK in the first quarter of 2019, according to the BBC. Most were caught while abroad, although the disease then spread throughout communities in the UK where vaccination rates are low.
Measles can be prevented with the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine, offered in two doses. The first is typically given when a child hits their first birthday, while the second is administered just before they start school, though you can access the vaccine at any age in the UK.
However, only 87% of children are getting their second dose. This figure might seem high, but to officially eliminate the disease, vaccination coverage must be at least 95% — this establishes “herd immunity” — a target last reached in Britain across data from 2014-16.
Which begs the question: why aren’t parents vaccinating their children?
"I think there's complacency"— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) August 19, 2019
The UK has been stripped of its #measles-free status. 💉@Dr_Raj_Patel from @NHSEngland tells #BBCBreakfast stories on social media are partly to blame ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/9KCuDFDSVW
Prime Minister Boris Johnson blames misleading information about the effectiveness and safety of vaccinations online. On Monday, he urged social media firms to do better at tackling anti-vaccine messaging and announced that the National Health Service (NHS) website would do more to deconstruct harmful myths about safety.
"We need decisive action across our health service and society to make sure communities are properly immunised,” Johnson said.
"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,” he added.
He’s partly right. Suspicion around vaccinations can be traced back to Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who was struck off the medical register for publishing a fraudulent paper purporting to link vaccinations to autism. Subsequent studies have found no link between them — but the conspiracies still circulate on internet forums.
However, complacency also has a role. The BBC reports that perception is crucial — if people believe the threat is low, vaccination rates can suffer.
The @WHO has confirmed the UK has lost its ‘measles free’ status. Measles is one of the most infectious diseases known to man and lots of work is underway to combat the rise in cases. Our blog explains the current situation: https://t.co/99jBUnfJiz#ValueofVaccines@DHSCgovukpic.twitter.com/7P1MANrle7— Public Health England (@PHE_uk) August 19, 2019
In 2018, there were 991 confirmed measles cases in England and Wales, while the year before that there were just 284 cases. Globally, there have been 364,808 cases reported so far this year.
According to the NHS, symptoms are similar to those of a cold, involving coughing, sneezing, aches, pains, tiredness, a high temperature, and spots in your mouth. It often clears up within a week, but can lead to serious complications like infections of the lungs (pneumonia) and brain (encephalitis). The disease can be deadly.
As news spread of Britain losing its measles-free status, the internet reacted with an important message: please vaccinate your children, everyone.
It's simply shocking that the UK is no longer classed as Measles free. A fall in vaccination uptake represents a lack of awareness and education on this issue. Not getting the vaccination doesn't just affect your child, it can threaten other people's children. #Measles— Shane Kelly (@Shane98kelly) August 19, 2019
I've just seen that the UK isn't measles free anymore. Because of my kidney transplant I have no imunne system, which means if I get measles. I WILL DIE. Without vaccines, children and adults like me will unnecessarily die. So please, vaccinate your children. #measles#vaccines— Liv 🌻 (@Oliviamay1995) August 19, 2019
The saddest story Roald Dahl ever wrote- on the death of his daughter Olivia from measles. This is a deadly, highly infectious disease- if you haven’t had your child appropriately vaccinated, please do so. We must not go backwards #VaccinesWorkpic.twitter.com/ZAcNDvtnoP— Chris Skidmore (@CSkidmoreUK) August 19, 2019
Your periodic reminder that measles isn’t a disease that makes you “a bit spotty”. It’s not a childhood rite of passage like nits. It kills children. There’s no magic treatment. Vaccinate your kids. https://t.co/WMhzpOMpEG— Adam Kay (@amateuradam) August 19, 2019
Global Citizen Prize at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Dec. 13 is the first major event in our 2020 campaign, Global Goal Live: The Possible Dream. The year-long campaign will focus on three crucial areas: the climate crisis, gender equality, and human capital — empowering people to lift themselves out of poverty through access to quality education, nutritious food, and universal health systems. Vaccinations are one of the most effective ways to ensure good health and end preventable deaths, in line with the UN’s Global Goal 3 for health and wellbeing.
Next year will be vital for global health efforts, with the UK set to continue its world-leading efforts on health by hosting a major global conference on vaccines — a replenishment moment for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Gavi’s efforts over the past two decades have already seen more than 700 million children vaccinated, and 10 million lives saved as a result. You can join the movement to end extreme poverty and ensure that everyone has access to vaccines by taking action with us here.