The NHS is addressing missed MMR vaccines in children as it aims to combat the rising number of measles cases in England.

The NHS said it will contact millions of parents and carers in England to book their children in for a catch-up vaccine with a GP, according to a 22 January press release.

The new campaign will also target areas with low vaccine uptake rates. Over one million people aged 11 to 25 years old in London and the West Midlands will be invited for catch-up vaccinations.

The NHS said its figures indicate that more than 3.4 million children under 16 years of age are still unprotected against the three infectious diseases.

In January 2024, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) declared a national incident following a surge in measles outbreaks across Britain.  The highly contagious measles virus can cause serious illness and, in some cases, even death in children and adults. It is also dangerous if caught during pregnancy, potentially resulting in stillbirth, miscarriage, and low birth weight.

The UKHSA said that the virus will continue to spread unless MMR vaccine uptake is increased.  The agency stated in a 2023 risk assessment that MMR vaccine coverage is at its lowest in a decade.

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The UKHSA’s consultant medical epidemiologist Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam said: “The continuing downward trend in the uptake of routine childhood vaccinations is a serious concern. We now have a very real risk of measles outbreaks across the country.”

The NHS uses M-M-RVaxPro and Priorix for MMR vaccines. MSD makes M-M-RVaxPro while GSK makes Priorix. They were approved for use in the UK in 1997 and 2006, respectively.

Two doses of the vaccines are required, resulting in lifelong protection with high efficacy against the viruses.  

Measles, mumps, and rubella are easily spread between unvaccinated people. The NHS said that one infected child in a classroom could infect up to nine other unvaccinated children.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said 95% vaccine coverage would eliminate measles in a population completely. The UK has never achieved this. Uptake for the first dose in two-year-olds in England is 89.5%. For the two required doses, this drops to 85.6%, based on UKHSA’s 2023 risk assessment for measles resurgence report.

Vaccination uptake also varies considerably across the country. London is the most vulnerable region where vaccination coverage sits at 74.1% for both doses at five years of age. The UKHSA has warned that with current levels of coverage, a measles outbreak of between 40,000 and 160,000 cases could occur in the capital.

NHS director of vaccinations and screening Steve Russell said: “People who are unvaccinated can get catch-up jabs at MMR pop-ups in schools and other convenient places while GPs, teachers and trusted community leaders are encouraging groups that are less likely to get their jab to come forward.”