Vaccination has saved millions upon millions of lives since it was developed by Edward Jenner nearly 250 years ago. It is arguably the single most impactful medical intervention ever created.
The World Health Organisation estimates that it saved 10 million deaths between 2010 and 2015 alone. Yet we now take it for granted, to the extent that complacency has become endemic. Parents are increasingly refusing to have their children vaccinated. This has become a major public health crisis, with the numbers falling so low that there are now outbreaks.
MMR (measles. mumps and rubella) vaccinations in Britain have fallen to a record low of around 87 per cent. While this might sound high, in fact it’s worryingly low. It threatens herd immunity, which protects the most vulnerable of society at risk from these dangerous and potentially deadly diseases.
In upstate New York, unvaccinated children are being banned from public places due to concerns about measles. It sounds draconian, but I think we should follow suit. Although I believe it is a civic duty to have your child vaccinated, I think parents should still have the right not to have a child vaccinated if they wish. However, other children should not be put at risk. Any child who has not had MMR or other childhood vaccines – unless for a medical reason – should be excluded from state school.
Many parents cite concerns that vaccines either “overwhelm” the immune system or in some way risk hurting the child. Yet there is absolutely no evidence of this and plenty of evidence that they save lives.
The now entirely discredited study by Andrew Wakefield in the 1990s did much to fuel the concerns. He published research that appeared to suggest a link between the MMR vaccine and autism and bowel problems. It generated a media furore and public panic.
His research has been entirely discredited. Yet still the myths and lies continue. Many are perpetuated on YouTube channels or social media, and doctors have been caught off guard. We must fight back against the tide of misinformation that is being peddled and that includes some tough decisions about what to do with children whose parents have chosen not to vaccinate them.
It is a fine balance between allowing parents the right to make choices – however ill advised – about their children’s wellbeing and the rights of others not to be put at risk because of that decision. What concerns me is that when a parent decides not to vaccinate their child they are placing other children at school who are unable to have vaccines in direct danger. This is unfair as well as grossly irresponsible.
I do not propose enforcing vaccines. Government should limit its involvement in people’s lives to what is absolutely necessary to retain law and order and allow people to make decisions concerning other aspects of their lives – and this should include whether or not to vaccinate their children. But any parent choosing not to give their child the MMR vaccine because of concerns about autism is making, scientifically speaking, the wrong decision. It is hard to sit by and watch people put children at risk.
One in four children under five in England and Wales has not had both MMR injections, which are needed to give full protection against measles, mumps and rubella. Some advocate separate vaccines but these expose children to periods in which they can be infected and are therefore inferior.
It would be wrong to offer something that is known to be less effective when there is not a shred of scientific evidence to support doing so. MMR remains the gold standard and this is what should be given.
To me the choice is simple: with a parent’s rights comes responsibilities. Ensuring your child is vaccinated not only ensures their health but the health of their classmates. If you shirk that responsibility, then it is only fair that other children are protected and that child is excluded from school.
The Marvellous Adventure of Being Human by Dr Max Pemberton (illustrated by Chris Madden) is published by Wren and Rook in hardback, £14.99