Trained volunteers should be used to give vaccine advice to parents at doctors’ surgeries, one of Britain’s leading immunisation experts has said.
Professor Heidi Larson, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Vaccine Confidence Project, made the proposal after the World Health Organization withdrew the UK’s status as a measles-free nation last week, when it was revealed that there had been more than 200 cases in England in the first quarter of the year.
“The news that Britain is no longer measles-free should be seen as a wake-up call,” said Larson. “It is telling us we need to take urgent action to restore our immunisation programmes to their previous good health and one way to do that would be to provide groups of advisers to provide information about vaccines.”
Larson stressed that these encounters should be face to face and should not be carried out online. “We need people who are trained at a basic level. Patients would have trust in them. We are losing that in the stress of the current system.”
The state of current immunisation programmes was revealed last week by Public Health England (PHE), which announced that about 30,000 children will start primary school next month with no protection against measles, mumps and rubella, while 90,000 have had only the first of the two vaccines necessary for protection.
As a result, prime minister Boris Johnson announced a series of urgent measures aimed at restoring the UK’s measles-free status. They include:
• Asking GPs to promote catch-up vaccinations for children who have missed both anti-measles shots.
• Urging social media companies to suppress misleading anti-vaccine messages.
• Inviting organisations to a summit to discuss how to better promote accurate vaccination information.
• Using the NHS website to address claims about vaccine safety.
However, Larson stressed that she thought further measures would be necessary. “If we are seeing rising cases for measles that means under-vaccination is occurring and not just for it but for other diseases,” she said. “Mumps and rubella will obviously rise because vaccines for these diseases are included with measles vaccines in MMR shots.”
In addition to worries about the take-up of the MMR vaccine, there are also fears that immunisation programmes for dealing with conditions that include Haemophilus influenzae type b and whooping cough could also become compromised. “The trouble is that there is a growing questioning about the safety of vaccines. People in the UK tend to be more confident about vaccines than individuals in other nations but there are growing numbers of groups that have been raising doubts about their safety,” said Larson.
However, there were not enough GPs to answer all the questions people had about vaccines, she added. “We need to have people in clinics and surgeries where they can answer questions and talk through patients’ concerns. We need another layer to deal with the issues that are being raised about immunisation.”
One reason for the jump in cases, said Larson, was the extraordinary prevalence of the disease in the rest of Europe and across the world, increasing the risk of people being infected and bringing it home.
This point was backed by Dr Mary Ramsay, PHE’s head of immunisation. “We’re continuing to see outbreaks of the disease across the country, many linked to visiting European countries over the summer holidays,” she told the Guardian last week. “It’s crucial children have maximum protection as they begin to mix with other children at school.”
Larson added: “We only achieved measles-free status three years ago and that took a lot of hard work. Now we have to start again.”