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UK childhood vaccination rates amongst highest in world because parents 'trust NHS'

Article By: Michaela Mildenhall

In many parts of Europe and the United States a growing number of parents are not immunising their children and scientists are warning that this is leading to a rise in dangerous outbreaks of diseases such as measles.

Credit: Evgeny Atamanenko

Diseases which are now extinct in the UK, such as polio, have even been surfacing again in certain Eastern European countries. In response, some governments are going as far as banning non-immunised children from state nurseries, but as child immunisation expert Professor Helen Bedford tells, things are completely different in the UK.

According to Professor Bedford, the majority of British parents do immunise and “they do it because they trust the NHS, they trust their healthcare professionals and they understand that immunisation is important.”

Vaccinations by parents in UK are growing

Helen Bedford of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health says: “If we look at the uptake rates of immunisation, which is the best way of seeing whether or not people are immunising, they are very high, in fact over 90 per cent. So, the overwhelming amount of people in this country do immunise their children.”

Recent figures, obtained by Professor Bedford and her colleagues, demonstrate that record numbers of parents in the UK are now immunising their children partially because of the high regard parents have for the NHS, and partly because injections are free on the routine NHS vaccination programme.

In the UK, there are routine vaccinations offered free of charge on the NHS to all babies and children. The majority of them are offered in infancy, but there is also a 4-in-1 pre-school booster for children aged three years and four months of age, as well as later ones.

According to a report co-authored by Professor Bedford called ‘Changing attitudes to childhood immunisation in English Parents’, one thing is very clear; the uptake of childhood vaccinations by parents in this country is increasing not decreasing.

2015 results in the report showed that 90 per cent of parents automatically had all their children’s immunisations done when they became due, which is a drastic rise from 2010, which saw only 72 per cent of parents automatically immunising their children. The main reasons for the ten per cent of parents not currently vaccinating is slightly varied, but seems to not be influenced by any trends on social media.

“If you look at the reasons why children don’t get immunised, the main one is difficulty accessing services. This includes disadvantaged families, and parents who for whatever reasons, have busy lives and don’t have time. Often with pre-school children it’s because parents forget,” says Professor Bedford.

Countries abroad see rise in ‘anti-vaxxer’ communities

The US and much of Western Europe appears to have a slowly growing number of parents that have decided, for a variety of personally held beliefs, not to vaccinate their children. This is in stark contrast to what is happening the UK. The term that has been given to these parents, or those who subscribe to the anti-vaccination narrative, is ‘anti-vaxxers’.

The platform of the ‘anti-vaxxer’ is usually a variety of social media outlets, and this is perhaps why their arguments seem so vocal; but it is very hard to ascertain exact stats on whether many ‘anti-vaxxers’ are in fact vaccinating their children or not.

Professor Bedford states how important stats are in determining whether ‘anti-vaxxing’ is becoming a trend or not, and that social media comments should not be used as a data source. She says: “The slightly dangerous thing about social media is determining people’s perceptions based on social media, because what you get with social media is people with strong views either way, and actually we know that most people are very happy to get their children immunised in Britain.


“In the UK, the reality is that Public Health England conducts surveys of about 1,000 parents every year, and what they show is that there has been an increase in parents immunising without reservation”.

However, both the Italian and French governments clearly think that ‘anti-vaxxers’ are posing something of a social problem in their countries, bringing in hard-line legislation to try to induce parents to vaccinate their children.

Professor Bedford thinks this mandatory approach is always going to have less success than providing information, education and free or affordable healthcare. She says of the legislation:

“We need to be clear that those countries have never had such good uptake as we have. We are one of the best countries in the world for the uptake of vaccination without the recourse to legislation.

“I was interviewing some parents quite recently and they all said, ‘we trust our NHS, and we trust our healthcare professionals’.”

Autistic charity hits back at Trump and states there's ‘no link between vaccines and autism’

In America, there also appears to be a growing trend for not vaccinating children. A Trump tweet from 2016, clearly demonstrates the position from the US president on childhood vaccination: “Healthy young child goes to doctor gets pumped with massive shot of vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!”

The National Autistic Society has a statement on its website about the views of the recently elected president, it says: “According to the National Autistic Society, in light of recent media speculation about the new US President’s views on autism, we feel it's important to re-state that research has comprehensively found no link between vaccines and autism.

“We believe that no further attention or research funding should be unnecessarily directed towards examining a link that has already been comprehensively discredited.”

This comment also refers to controversy in the 1990s over a research paper published in the Lancet by former doctor Andrew Wakefield, which incorrectly stated that there was a link between autism and the MMR jab for measles, mumps and rubella. At the time, then prime minister Tony Blair was famously asked if his children had received the jab, and he was seemingly reluctant to answer, causing something of a media storm.

This paper has now been discredited as bad science, and Andrew Wakefield has been struck off the medical register, but the incident has lived on.

Professor Bedford’s report does demonstrate however, that the reach of the MMR scandal is diminishing in this country, and a new generation of parents, too young to remember the incident with Tony Blair, are now putting their trust in the NHS, and to a lesser degree, the Government and science.

Professor Bedford believes this environment of rationality and reason is encouraging, and thinks that UK nurseries also have an important part to play in education about childhood immunisations. She says:

“The role that nurseries in particular, and pre-school setting have, which is very important, is to remind parents to get their children immunised, as some parents simply do simply forget.”

According to Melanie Pitcher, policy and standards manager from the Pre-School Learning Alliance, nurseries are not only vital for informing parents about vaccinations, but are also a key component for stopping the further spread of any breakouts.

She advises that nurseries “understand what notifiable diseases are, such as measles, mumps and others.” She also reminds practitioners “that only a GP can diagnose infections, who then has the responsibility of notifying the relevant authorities, and childcare providers must also inform Ofsted if a child attending their setting is confirmed as having a notifiable disease.”


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