Public Health England has admitted it has missed its target of vaccinating 120,000 children with MMR by the beginning of the new school year, with latest estimates showing only half of those it planned to target have been immunised.
PHE announced today that it estimates around 65,000 previously unvaccinated children between 10 and 16 years of age have now received a first dose of MMR vaccine.
This is only slightly over half of the 120,000 children in this age group PHE aimed to vaccinate to ensure 95% were protected with the first dose before they started going back to school after the summer break.
The MMR catch-up campaign was the first major test of the Government’s new structure for public health and there have been concerns that the new structures are lacking sufficient staff and experience to cope.
PHE has promised to ‘further reinforce’ the programme and increase vaccine uptake in school-age children, although it is unclear yet what role GPs will play in this.
According to the figures, which are based on data from around a quarter of practices in England, an additional 2% of 10–16-year-olds have now completed the full two-dose course of MMR.
Measles cases have meanwhile continued to fall for the third month in a row, with 73 confirmed cases in July, compared with 116 in June and 194 in May. But the potential for new measles outbreaks remain a concern as children and young people go back to schools and colleges, increasing the risk of infections spreading.
PHE has renewed calls for any children and young people who have not yet had a dose of MMR to make an appointment with their GP, and is developing plans to ‘further reinforce the programme and increase vaccine uptake in school-age children’.
The MMR catch-up campaign was launched back in May, after concerns an outbreak of measles centred on Swansea could spread to other towns and cities. PHE prioritised vaccinating an estimated 300,000 unvaccinated 10–16-year-olds, with the interim target of giving 120,000 of these children their first dose –meaning 95% of this cohort would have had at least one dose by the start of the school term.
PHE also aims to capture another 300,000 partially vaccinated 10–16-year-olds, and 300,000 unvaccinated or partially vaccinated children outside this age group.
GPs were charged with heading up the campaign, identifying and inviting in unprotected or partially protected children in the target age group, and helping to ensure an additional 110,000 were vaccinated by July.
But progress has since stalled and PHE said last month it was working with NHS England area teams to plan additional work to reach remaining unvaccinated children, having already admitted to Pulse the campaign would have to run into the new school year.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England, said: ‘We are still making good progress towards the 95% uptake target. We have seen a persistent month-on-month drop in cases, however, it is still too soon to tell if this is of consequence to the campaign.
‘As children return to school this week, it is important to remember that measles is highly infectious and spreads easily in the classroom. Children who are fully vaccinated with MMR help to stop the spread and therefore to protect their friends and families. This is particularly important for those who have health problems such as weakened immune systems who cannot be vaccinated but are most at risk if exposed to the disease.
‘This serves as a timely reminder for those who have not received a dose of the MMR vaccine to contact their GP urgently. After the second dose individuals achieve almost complete protection.’
GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey said the lower than hoped uptake was ‘no surprise’ and called for a school-based programme.
He said: ‘This will come as no surprise to GPs who for many years have been trying repeatedly to persuade parents to allow their children to be immunised. These figures show how difficult the task is.
‘It is time a school based programme was introduced across the country to try to reach these children who need protection.’