Twenty years ago, gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield co-authored the now-notorious report that claimed a link between autism and the MMR (Measles, Mumps & Rubella) vaccine. Parents panicked and the number of vaccinated children dropped dramatically; the anti-vaxxer movement was born.
The report has since been thoroughly debunked. Wakefield was subsequently struck off by the British General Medical Council. But belief in his views persists. Wakefield himself remains defiant – in direct contradiction to the vast majority of the scientific community – and has garnered a new audience in the USA.
It’s appalling that at least 37 people have died in Europe this year from a completely preventable disease.”
His legacy in Europe is an increase in the number of reported cases of measles. The World Health Organisation announced that more than 41,000 people in the WHO European Region were infected in the first half of 2018 alone. There have been 37 deaths.
Figures show the majority of those affected were either unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated.
“It’s appalling that at least 37 people have died in Europe this year from a completely preventable disease. Although no deaths have so far been reported, in England there have been over 800 cases,” says Professor Helen Bedford, from the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health.
“MMR is a safe, effective and readily available vaccine to prevent this highly infectious disease,” she adds.
Those born since 1998 are believed to be those who are most at risk, as vaccination rates at that time collapsed following Wakefield’s paper in The Lancet medical journal. Although MMR uptake rates in the UK are now generally high, there are still some areas where few children are given the vaccine.
As a parent, surely it’s anathema to do anything that puts our children at risk? Yet with the link between autism and MMR comprehensively disproved, this is what those who choose not to vaccinate their kids are doing.
With a vaccine-preventable disease, one case is too many and the number of measles cases so far this year is astounding”
In the US, Wakefield has been blamed for an outbreak of measles last year in Minnesota. After he visited the Somali American community in the state, vaccination levels dropped from around 92% to 40%. The disease subsequently infected 79 people, most of them children aged under ten years old. Twenty needed hospital treatment.
“With a vaccine-preventable disease, one case is too many and the number of measles cases so far this year is astounding,” says Assistant Professor Pauline Paterson, co-director of The Vaccine Confidence Project team at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
The good news is that it’s not too late for those who haven’t yet had the MMR vaccine
“Measles is a highly infectious disease that can spread rapidly and lead to serious complications – a very high vaccination coverage of 95% is needed for community protection. If it dips below this in certain regions, measles can spread, and outbreaks can – and are – occurring.”
Professor Bedford says that it’s not too late for those who haven’t yet had the MMR vaccine, or who have only had one of the necessary two doses that gives immunity.
“Fortunately, it is never too late to catch up and I would urge people who have not had the two doses of MMR needed for best protection – or are not sure if they have – to go to their GP and be vaccinated. This is particularly important if you are going on a European holiday and for children before they go back to school or start university,” she adds.