September 26, 2021

We MUST stop school gates being a breeding ground for MMR myths, says SIMON STEVENS


Simon Stevens (pictured) says school gates have become ‘breeding grounds’ for toxic myths about childhood jabs

Some of the first patients to come through the doors of the NHS would have been afflicted with the polio virus, responsible for as many as 8,000 cases of paralysis and hundreds of deaths every year during the fearful epidemics of the early and mid-20th century.

At the time, the world’s solution to polio extended only to the iron lung, with public authorities offering little hope of protection – or indeed survival – once anyone was infected with this lethal disease.

Thankfully, prevention, treatment and care have come on dramatically in the 70-plus years since the NHS was founded. Only a decade after the birth of the health service, polio cases dropped dramatically as a result of the introduction of routine vaccination.

Thanks to greater public awareness, improved research and better health services, we have seen devastating conditions – including polio and smallpox – go from being a common concern for every family to relics of a bygone era.

Until recently we thought the same was true for measles. But worryingly, the World Health Organisation has announced that our country is no longer measles-free.

And just last week it was confirmed that the vaccination rate for two-year-olds getting their first MMR dose has dropped for the fifth consecutive year, hitting 90.3 per cent, leaving one in ten children at risk.

Crucially, this rate is below the 95 per cent threshold where a critical mass of people is protected, creating a ‘herd immunity’ that keeps the whole population safe. That matters, because for children who can’t be vaccinated – for example, if they are being treated for cancer – their life depends on other children having had the jab to keep infection at bay.

So getting vaccinated against killer diseases is not only safe but essential to keeping you, your family and your community healthy.

In some areas, particularly in London, one child in three is not receiving the two jabs necessary for full MMR immunity (pictured the MMR vaccine) 

Dropped rates of vaccination mean many more people are vulnerable and exposed to risk, and all it takes for a whole society to be in danger is for one person to catch a disease and start a contagion.

The recent World Health Organisation report warned that Brits have effectively imported illness following holidays abroad.

There are, of course, complex reasons why someone may not get their child protected, with no single reason being pinpointed for the steady decline.

Over the coming year, the NHS is going to be making it easier for parents to get their children vaccinated, and GP practices continue to play a key part in vaccinating young people who have missed out.

There’s also a lively debate about whether children should be expected to be up to date with immunisations before they can start school.

But among those factors that experts cite for the drop in uptake of this simple health precaution is so-called ‘vaccine hesitancy’. In the 1990s, a concerted and discredited effort by disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield scared people into thinking vaccinations were dangerous. His toxic legacy lingers, with some still believing his pseudoscience and spurious claims.

Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England, says school gates have become ‘breeding grounds’ for toxic myths about childhood jabs (stock image)

Telling parents it’s dangerous to get vaccinated is like telling them it’s dangerous for their child to look left and right before crossing the street.

The Lancet medical journal reported recently that ‘vaccine-hesitant’ parents are not just those who are unaware of immunisation, but actually those who have sought out – often online – additional information, and no doubt reassurance, about vaccinations. This means that, cruelly, it can be parents who go the extra mile to try to do the right thing and make an informed decision – whether by doing more research online, asking their friends or fellow parents – who are liable to stumble on and be deceived by ‘fake news’.

In this way the school gates themselves can be a breeding ground for harmful myths to catch on, spread and ultimately infect parents’ judgment.

That parents’ efforts and anxiety to make the right decision for their children are jeopardised by wilful misinformation is unacceptable. Fortunately, some firms are taking action in response to my calls to both clamp down on fake news and help parents navigate to a safe haven of verified information online.

Instagram has committed to blocking content on its site that promotes demonstrably false health news, Facebook has said it will use its algorithms to make this dangerous content less prominent, Twitter is bringing in a function to direct people to legitimate health resources and Google improved its search function so it prioritises NHS information on vaccinations.

So, when people search for information on vaccinations, they get the right information first time.

With parents often taking their cue from other mums and dads, there must be a zero-tolerance approach to misinformation, while the Government’s strategy on improving vaccination levels will help to drive action.

While the National Health Service and the families we help must continue to demand more concerted action from websites to stamp out efforts to mislead mums, dads and carers, there are thankfully simple steps they can take to shut out the noise and keep children safe.

The MMR vaccine is given through two quick and pain-free jabs: one at age one and the next at three years and four months. Both doses are essential for immunity to take effect.

For any parent in doubt, the health service is making verified information more accessible: the NHS website – – is now a trusted source of evidence-based advice, including on the importance of vaccinations.

In a world where often so much of the focus is on new drugs and cutting-edge technology, one of the most effective tools for keeping us all safe is a simple, free jab, conveniently available at your local GP practice, which can save the life of your child or grandchild.

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