Having endured months of restrictions on our freedoms to deal with Covid-19, we now face a major health threat entirely of our own making: vaccine hesitancy. Measles – a centuries-old contagious disease which can lead to serious complications – is on the rise. Hospitals in Birmingham are dealing with their biggest outbreak in years. Health experts are warning that, unless more children are vaccinated, more admissions should be expected.
This should worry, but not surprise us. In some areas and groups in London, coverage of the first MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) dose is as low as 69.5 per cent. Approximately 10 per cent of children in the UK are unprotected from measles by the time they start school, with coverage at 12 year lows. The country is well below the 95 per cent required for herd immunity: just 84.5 per cent of people were fully vaccinated last year.
Experts fear that, over time, complacency – and with it, apathy – has crept in. Before the development of a vaccine, there were often hundreds of thousands of cases of measles every year. In 1967, the year before the jab was first introduced, there were around 460,000 suspected cases in the UK, and 99 people died from the disease. In 2020, there was believed to be just one (adult) death.
Herd immunity means that, because a large proportion of the population has been inoculated, an unvaccinated person is at reduced risk of getting the disease. As a result, some parents won't bother, knowing they can rely on others deciding to vaccinate theirs. We too readily forget that herd immunity is important for individuals who, for health reasons, cannot be immunised or respond less well to vaccines. This is being compromised by ‘free riders’.