For families, Covid vaccination is now a confusing picture. Kids as young as five are being jabbed in mainland Europe.
It’s the same across the US, in Australia and other countries – from China to South Africa and Chile.
But here in the UK we’ve done things differently.
Teenagers aged 12 to 17 have been offered the jab, along with vulnerable younger children with underlying health problems, but experts have been more cautious about whether to roll it out more broadly to healthy children under 12.
Studies have shown it’s safe in this age group and provides good protection. Vaccine experts on the Government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) are reportedly keen to offer it on an optional ‘non-urgent’ basis.
Their hesitation is based – in part – on whether it’s actually needed, because Covid is so mild in younger children. But behind the scenes at the JCVI, and elsewhere, there is a far more worrying concern.
Experts have expressed their fears that scepticism and fake news about the Covid vaccine is having a knock-on effect: triggering doubts about other – arguably far more vital – childhood jabs
Experts have expressed their fears that scepticism and fake news about the Covid vaccine is having a knock-on effect: triggering doubts about other – arguably far more vital – childhood jabs.
Alasdair Munro, an expert in paediatric infectious diseases at University Hospital Southampton, said: ‘This is the one thing paediatricians are all very worried about.
‘We’re all hoping it’s not happening in practice, but no one really knows.’
Some worry that introducing the vaccine into this younger age group in particular could be seen as an unnecessary intervention that fuels mistrust not only in the drive to vaccinate against Covid but in the entire childhood vaccine schedule.
These fears are not unfounded. Since the pandemic started in March 2020, there has been a significant drop in the uptake of routine childhood vaccinations, including the MMR jab and the six-in-one given to babies.
Most are given before a child starts school, and some need extra booster doses for full protection.
But an analysis of the latest official figures by The Mail on Sunday shows a second dip coinciding with the Covid vaccine rollout which began in December 2020.
Some worry that introducing the vaccine into this younger age group in particular could be seen as an unnecessary intervention that fuels mistrust not only in the drive to vaccinate against Covid but in the entire childhood vaccine schedule. Pictured: Protests in London
Worryingly, the latest figures suggest rates of certain jabs are lower than they have been for more than ten years.
It means thousands more children are unprotected against a litany of serious, life-threatening illnesses such as measles, mumps, tetanus, whooping cough and bacterial infections which can cause pneumonia and meningitis.
This is potentially serious. Vaccination has all but eradicated diseases such as measles and polio in the UK, while bringing others under control.
As the world re-opens to international travel, they could be brought back across our borders – and cause much harm.
Measles is like a jam jar full of wasps that are raging to get out
As Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation that funds health research, said: ‘Caring and trying to look after a child with encephalitis [brain swelling] following measles infection was one of the most awful and tragic experiences of my professional life.
‘Twenty years ago now, I remember the child and their family as if yesterday. Please do ensure your child has access to MMR vaccine.’
A member of the JCVI told The Mail on Sunday it remained unclear how much of the drop-off was linked to changes in parents’ attitudes to vaccines in general, and how much was related to practical problems getting children vaccinated during the pandemic.
Some parents were reluctant to take their children into GP practices, and others did not realise the jabs were still being offered. Today, some are struggling to contact overstretched GPs to reschedule appointments.
But Professor Liam Smeeth, Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: ‘We noticed vaccine coverage was dropping very early in the pandemic, and that wasn’t too unexpected. But then it started to fall again.
‘There are real worries the campaign of misinformation around the Covid jab – stuff like it being invented by Bill Gates to control the population – is starting to seep out to influence thoughts on vaccines more generally.
IT’S A FACT
The US government is to begin giving Covid jabs to children under the age of five as soon as February 21.
‘We know from all our work on vaccine confidence that it’s never one thing – it’ll be a bit of misinformation, problems getting into a GP surgery, complacency about risk.
‘But all of those things together create a perfect storm. And we don’t have to see much of a drop in measles vaccine coverage in the UK to get measles outbreaks.
‘Measles is like a jam jar full of wasps that are raging to get out. The minute vaccine coverage drops, measles will reappear.’
The greatest falls in childhood vaccine uptake are over the MMR vaccine that protects against measles, mumps and rubella.
The triple jab has been the subject of controversy since the now-discredited former doctor, Andrew Wakefield, falsely claimed it was linked to autism in 1998.
In 2019, 86.8 per cent of children in England received both MMR jabs. This fell to 85.5 per cent last year – although this could be even lower as the latest figures relating to the last quarter of 2021 aren’t yet available.
It was last at that level in 2009, and well below the World Health Organisation target of 95 per cent coverage.
That drop of 1.3 per cent equates to roughly 8,400 children – based on 650,000 births a year. And the country-wide figures mask local trends where the drops are more significant.
In Middlesbrough, for example, 84.7 per cent of children received both doses of MMR in 2020, compared with 86.7 per cent the year before.
Jackie Fletcher, who runs the private vaccine service Jabs, said that a lack of confidence in the Covid vaccine had spilled over into concerns over other routine vaccinations
Middlesbrough has a worryingly low Covid vaccine uptake, too: just 51 per cent of residents have had three doses.
The difference is even greater in Liverpool, where just 45.8 per cent are fully vaccinated against Covid. There, 79.5 per cent of children had both MMR doses last year, against 85.3 per cent the previous year.
There are notable differences too in Birmingham and the London borough of Camden – where Covid vaccine uptake generally is low.
In Camden, only 59.8 per cent of five-year-olds have had both MMR doses, which is one of the lowest rates in the country. And only 40 per cent of adults have been fully vaccinated against Covid.
Uptake of other childhood jabs have fallen too during the pandemic, by between 0.1 and 0.5 per cent. Last year, just 84 per cent of children had taken up the pre-school booster, which protects against diphtheria, polio, tetanus and whooping cough.
Helen Donovan, the Royal College of Nursing’s professional lead for public health, said: ‘We’re having the same conversations with people that we were having 15 years ago [over the Wakefield scandal].
‘It’s a depressing step backwards because we’d made so much progress in getting vaccination levels up.
IT’S A FACT
In Hong Kong, everyone who tests positive for Covid is hospitalised – whether or not they have symptoms.
‘While the Covid programme has boosted people’s understanding about how they work, it has also boosted some of the propaganda and misinformation which works in the opposite direction.
‘We were countering it back then, but the speed that misinformation can travel now because of social media means that’s much harder.
‘Nurses working in the community tell me they come across families who are concerned about vaccinating their younger children, even though their older ones received the jabs.
‘We must remind people these diseases are life-threatening. Children die of measles. Mumps can cause viral meningitis. If pregnant women get rubella it can be catastrophic for the unborn baby.
‘Measles sweeping through a primary school would have a far worse outcome than Covid could.’
Some of the misinformation includes false claims the vaccine can cause infertility, HIV or alter DNA, or that it hasn’t been tested rigorously enough.
Unfounded claims that people have started vomiting blood or died suddenly after being vaccinated have been shared millions of times on social media.
And outlandish conspiracy theories abound – that the jabs contain microchips used to track and control people, and that pharmaceutical companies are covering up side effects to boost profits.
US rapper Kanye West, who has millions of social media followers, described the jab as ‘the mark of the beast’. While Facebook now filters out such content, it remains easily accessible on WhatsApp, SnapChat and TikTok.
One mother-of-two in her 30s said what she had learned online about the Covid vaccine had made her ‘more adamant’ that she had made the right choice over immunising her children.
Her eldest, now seven, has not had any vaccines since before he turned two, while her five-year-old has never been vaccinated.
‘I haven’t had the Covid vaccine and my children will never have it. I don’t believe its effectiveness has been proven and it makes you question it all.
‘A lot more people are now questioning whether to vaccinate their children post-Covid.
‘The way it’s been handled left me with no faith in the Government or the pharma companies.’
COVID Q&A – Can we stop self-isolating, and how likely am I to catch Covid again?
Q – Is it really true that people who catch Covid won’t have to self-isolate any more?
A – Yes, if all goes according to the Prime Minister’s plan. Last week, Boris Johnson pledged to remove all Covid restrictions in England by the end of this month – a month earlier than planned – including the duty to self-isolate if you test positive.
But some experts are worried.
Dr James Gill, of Warwick Medical School, says: ‘I have significant concerns patients will become complacent in the face of infection, resulting in further spread.’
There is also concern for the fate of 500,000 clinically vulnerable people who may not respond to vaccines, while others have worries that a move away from self-isolation and, ultimately, testing, could mean the UK loses track of new variants.
Dr Stephen Griffin, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Leeds, says: ‘Literally blinding ourselves by removing testing and isolation robs us of the most fundamental means of controlling the spread of this virus.’
But Professor Paul Hunter, public health expert from the University of East Anglia, says there are grounds for optimism, adding: ‘Case numbers have once again started to fall. Hospital admissions and ITU [intensive therapy unit] bed occupancy continue to fall and deaths are also now falling.’
Q – How common are Covid reinfections?
A – Increasingly common. Earlier this month the Government began incorporating reinfections into its daily data announcement.
And the insights from them have been telling.
Roughly one in ten of all infections this year up to the first week of February was in someone who had previously had Covid.
The most recent data from the Office for National Statistics suggests reinfection is far more likely with Omicron if you’ve had a different variant previously.
The risk of getting Covid for a second time was 16 times higher during the Omicron-dominant period, compared with the last half of 2021, dominated by Delta.
But Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, says a combination of previous natural infection and full vaccination will offer high levels of long-lasting protection against severe disease and death.
Jackie Fletcher, who runs the private vaccine service Jabs, said that a lack of confidence in the Covid vaccine had spilled over into concerns over other routine vaccinations.
‘The Government communication around the Covid vaccines has been awful,’ she said.
‘Parents have heard trials were rushed through, that pharma companies won’t be liable if something goes wrong.
‘They’ve seen official reports of suspected vaccine side effects, and yet no one has been reassuring people that they might not be linked and there’s been a closing down of debate with anyone who questions it being told they’re wrong. These are parents who are simply worried for their child’s safety.’
Not everyone agrees that vaccine hesitancy is having an impact.
Helen Bedford, Professor of Children’s Health at University College London, said the success of the childhood vaccination programme in virtually wiping out some diseases can lead to a false sense of confidence, with some parents believing there is no longer a need for the jabs.
‘When you don’t see any disease around, people forget how serious they can be and vaccine levels can fall,’ she added. ‘Unfortunately, it often takes an outbreak to remind people.’
Research that Prof Bedford carried out last year polled 600 parents of children under five about their views on vaccination.
The results were ‘very, very clear – 96 per cent said they believed it was good for their children’s health’, she said.
Justine Roberts, the founder of parenting forum Mumsnet, has also described how parents on the site – mainly middle-class mothers – remain overwhelmingly in support of the jabs.
Paediatrician Dr Munro said the rise in other respiratory viruses, which began spreading in children after covid restrictions were lifted, have also caused families to struggle to catch up with missed appointments.
And GPs have been prioritising Covid vaccines and boosters.
One mother told the MoS of her frustration at trying to get routine vaccinations for child.
‘My youngest, who’s now one, only had his eight-week jabs and hasn’t had any since,’ she said.
‘I didn’t want them done in the GP surgery during Covid and now I don’t have hours to spare on hold trying to get through to the surgery to make an appointment. It’s a ridiculous drama.’
Another, who has three children aged seven, two and one, added: ‘There have been no check-ups or contact from any services with my younger two, unlike when I had my first, so unless you’re chasing it and are on top of things you forget. Support has been shocking, especially for first-time mums.’
The UK Health Security Agency has launched a campaign to encourage parents to bring their children forward for vaccination.
So what, then, about the JCVI’s decision?
While some virus experts have been calling on social media for the rollout to begin, it may pay to hold back.
Health chiefs were similarly slow to recommend the jab to teenagers, amid concerns the Covid jab could trigger heart inflammation, or myocarditis.
The delay meant more data became available, including the fact that delaying the second dose significantly cuts the risk.
But in the meantime, the RCN’s Helen Donovan has called for services at a local level to be ’empathetic and understanding’ of people’s views.
She said: ‘We need local strategies, with expert knowledge of how to deal with local populations. Ultimately, everyone just wants to do the right thing for their children.’