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Anti-vaccine 'fake news' behind spike in measles - NHS

Sky News logo Sky News 3/1/2019 Paul Kelso, health correspondent
England has seen a five-year decline in vaccination take-up © Other England has seen a five-year decline in vaccination take-up

"Irresponsible" anti-vaccination messages circulated on social media platforms may be contributing to an increase in measles cases and a decline in vaccination take-up, the head of NHS England has warned.

Simon Stevens said "fake news" messages about vaccination shared on Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp appeared to be gaining traction, undermining irrefutable evidence that vaccination programmes save lives.

"Across the world two to three millions lives are saved every year but as part of the fake news movement vaccine deniers are getting some traction," he told the Nuffield Trust Health Policy Summit.

Video: "The World Health Organization warns of global rise in measles cases" (The Independent)

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"We have seen a tripling of cases of measles across England last year despite the fact vaccination works and we have seen a five-year decline in vaccination take-up.

"We have to win the public argument on this, and we are not helped by the fact that while nine out of 10 parents say they support vaccination, half of them say they have seen anti-vax messages on social media platforms including Instagram and YouTube.

"Frankly it's as irresponsible to tell parents that their children shouldn't be vaccinated as it is to get them to tell their children don't bother to look both ways when they cross the road on the way to primary school. As a health service we've really got to support parents on this."

a close up of a bottle: The MMR vaccine protects against measles, mumps and rubella © Getty The MMR vaccine protects against measles, mumps and rubella

Mr Stevens cited a WhatsApp message sent by a parent from his own daughter's primary school as evidence of the misleading information undermining vaccination programmes.

Public Health England figures show there were 913 measles cases between January and October 2018, up from 259 in the whole of 2017.

MMR vaccine take-up among five year-olds has fallen for five years in a row, with 87.2% of children vaccinated, below the World Health Organisation recommended level of 95%.

The medical establishment and available evidence are unanimous that vaccinations work, and that their value lies in mass uptake. For example, once measles uptake exceeds 95%, even those not vaccinated are effectively protected.

a person holding a baby: Baby with measles. File pic © Other Baby with measles. File pic

Yet the anti-vaccination movement has grown in recent years and is cited as a factor in alarming spikes in measles cases in the US, France and Italy.

The messages, which often claim vaccinations are dangerous, can compromise children's immune systems, and programmes are pushed by pharmaceutical companies with financial interests.

They have been taken up by some populist political movements such as Five Star in Italy, while Donald Trump has cited a link between vaccines and autism.

Gallery: Measles, smallpox and polio: the global fight against disease (photos)

In the UK, claims of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism by Dr Andrew Wakefield led to huge controversy.

Dr Wakefield's arguments were comprehensively discredited but he remains a vocal and feted "anti-vaxxer" in the US, where he has been dating model Elle Macpherson.

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