Incorrect anti-vaccination messages on social media are thought to be one reason why inoculation rates are plummeting, according to University of Sunderland psychology lecturer, Dr Sophie Hodgetts.

CONCERNS have this week been raised over the growing number of children who have not been vaccinated against measles, as new figures covering an eight-year period reveal more than half a million children in the UK have not been vaccinated against the infection.

The disease can be stopped through two doses of the MMR vaccine, but immunisation rates have been falling in the UK for a number of reasons, and the country has lost its measles-free status, three years after the virus was eliminated in the UK.

In the first quarter of 2019, there were 231 confirmed cases in the UK, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered urgent action to protect children, announcing that:

  • GPs are being asked to promote catch-up vaccinations for children who may have missed out on both doses.
  • Social media companies are being urged to quash misleading anti-vaccine messages.
  • The firms will be invited to a summit to explore how they can better promote accurate vaccination.

Dr Sophie Hodgetts, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Sunderland, believes that inaccurate and misleading anti-vaccination messages on social media could be one reason why inoculation rates are falling.

“If you already think vaccines are bad, chances are you will only search out information that supports that view,” she says.

“This information can come from anywhere; Facebook is a good example, but also a lot of other social media and online forums. If you are searching for evidence then you will find a lot of content. That is part of the reason why this issue keeps coming back time and time again.”

Unicef has warned that increasing numbers of youngsters are being left unprotected against measles, which can cause disability and death. Analysis by the charity shows that an estimated 169 million children around the world missed out on the first dose of the measles vaccine between 2010 and 2017 – an average of 21.1 million a year.

A list of ten high-income countries shows the US has the highest number of children missing out on their first dose of the vaccine.

Between 2010 and 2017, some 2,593,000 youngsters in the US did not have their first dose.

The second most affected country was France, with 608,000 unvaccinated children over the same time period, followed by the UK, with 527,000.

Dr Hodgetts says: “The fact that we are still talking about this issue is mind-boggling given that the research is pretty conclusive – that vaccines are safe.

“Whenever a celebrity comes out saying they are either for or against vaccines, the issue gets dragged up all over again. It is a very emotional issue and it plays on a lot of people’s concerns.”

And the fear is now that these concerns are leading to some sectors of society turning away from the vaccine.

In the first three months of 2019, more than 110,000 measles cases were reported worldwide – up almost 300 per cent on the same period the year before.

An estimated 110,000 people, most of them children, died from measles in 2017, a 22 per cent rise on the previous year.

Children need two doses of the vaccine for protection, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommending 95 per cent coverage to achieve herd immunity, which offers protection against the disease spreading in the community.

In the UK in 2017, there were 259 measles cases in England, rising to 966 in 2018.

In 2016 and 2017, uptake of the first dose of the MMR vaccine in five-year-olds in the UK exceeded 95 per cent for the first time.

However, two doses of MMR vaccine are required to ensure full protection from measles.

Uptake of the second dose of MMR in five-year-old children is 88 per cent – well below the 95 per cent WHO target.

Unicef said the rates reflected “lack of access, poor health systems, complacency, and in some cases fear or scepticism about vaccines”.