IT has been nearly 16 years since Dr Andrew Wakefield falsely linked the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism.
Wakefield’s work has since been discredited and he has been struck off the medical register, but public health experts are in no doubt that the scare stories sparked by his flawed research are still having repercussions today.
There are currently more than 800 recorded measles cases in the Swansea area of South Wales — the largest such outbreak in Britain for a decade. There were 622 cases recorded in another spike in Merseyside last year.
This rise in measles diagnoses is prompting experts to ask whether a generation of children is now suffering because Wakefield’s research made parents too scared to let their sons and daughters be immunised.
Dr John Grenville, a GP who serves as secretary of the Derbyshire local medical committee, certainly believes this is the case.
He told the Mail: “There is no doubt that the stories circulated after Wakefield’s research reduced the rate of immunisation to well below the 95 per cent needed. This means cases can spread rapidly through the unimmunised population.
“The fact we are seeing a lot of measles now is a direct result of his paper that has been retracted and for which Wakefield was struck off.”
Medics believe at least 19 in 20 children, or 95 per cent, must be immunised for the mass vaccination scheme to work at its full effectiveness.
But uptake plummeted to well below 90 per cent in many areas of the country following the publication of Wakefield’s data in 1998. Nationally, vaccination rates have recovered since then but are still below the required 95 per cent in many places.
Dr Grenville explained the science behind the vaccination programme: “The problem with infectious diseases is that if there is a certain amount of disease circulating in the community then people are likely to catch it.
“To stop it you need to immunise a high percentage of the population, 95 per cent plus. If you do that you tend to break the chain so you only get sporadic cases.
“If you get yourself or your child vaccinated then you protect yourself or you child and help to break the chain of transmission, in doing so protecting others as well.”
He said GP surgeries were now giving MMR vaccines to older children and young adults who had not been immunised as infants. The MMR injection is usually administered before a child’s second birthday, with a further dose offered later in life.
“In Derbyshire, for instance, the percentage MMR uptake was in the high 80s at its lowest,” Dr Grenville said.
“There are some areas where it appears to be worse than others.
“Uptake is often lower in London because of the mobile population or the larger number of non-English speaking residents.
“MMR uptake is heading back to where it should be but we are still hoping to do better.”
Measles symptoms include fever, conjunctivitis, sensitivity to light and rashes. There is no specific treatment for the illness but most sufferers are able to fight it off within several weeks.
The number of people diagnosed with the disease is currently at an 18-year high. Officials are almost unanimous in their belief that vaccination is the only way to stop measles.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation for Public Health England, said: “The only way to prevent measles outbreaks is to make sure there is good uptake of the MMR vaccine across all ages and, that when cases are reported, immediate public health action is taken to target unvaccinated individuals as soon as possible.
“Measles is often associated with being a disease of the past and, as a result, people may be unaware that it is dangerous and can lead to death in severe cases.
“Parents should ensure their children are fully protected against measles, mumps and rubella with two doses of the MMR vaccine.”
The evidence seems overwhelming that the Wakefield research has harmed MMR uptake levels in Britain.
How long it will take to undo the damage remains unclear, but medics share the opinion that the vaccine is the safest way to stop measles.