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UKHSA launches campaign to ‘urgently’ reverse childhood vaccination decline

by Anna Colivicchi and Rima Evans
4 March 2024

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A new campaign by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) to drive up childhood vaccinations across England has gone live today.

The organisation is issuing an ‘urgent call to action’ to parents to catch up on their children’s missed vaccinations, with ads to appear on TV, radio and social media warning of the risk of them not being protected against serious diseases.

The UKHSA said that uptake levels of childhood vaccines offered through the routine NHS vaccination programme in England ‘have been falling over the past decade across all vaccines’ including for whooping cough, measles, mumps and rubella, polio, meningitis and diphtheria.

It means England no longer has the levels of population immunity recommended by the World Health Organization needed to prevent outbreaks, it warned.

To counter the decline, the current push is also being co-ordinated with the NHS’ operational MMR catch-up campaign.

Areas with low uptake ‘will be a focus for support’, and parents of children aged from six to 11 years will be contacted directly and urged to make an appointment with their child’s GP practice for any missed MMR vaccines.

The campaign comes as the latest weekly update on measles cases in England shows there have been another 69 cases in the past week, bringing the total number of laboratory confirmed measles cases reported since 1 October last year to 650.

In the four weeks since 29 January, there have been 183 newly confirmed cases, with the highest number of cases reported from the West Midlands (43%).

UKHSA chief executive Professor Dame Jenny Harries said: ‘We need an urgent reversal of the decline in the uptake of childhood vaccinations to protect our communities.

‘Through this campaign we are particularly appealing to parents to check their children’s vaccination status and book appointments if their children have missed any immunisations. The ongoing measles outbreak we are seeing is a reminder of the very present threat.’

As part of a briefing on the campaign held last week, UKHSA director of public health programmes Dr Mary Ramsay said that general practice ‘has been crucial to get the rates that we have now’.

However, the national vaccination strategy, outlined at the end of last year, signalled a possible end to the current GP practice enhanced services and QOF targets, with ICBs set to take over population-level management and NHS England launching 12 ‘demonstrator sites’ to test new models for delivering vaccinations, including health visitors taking on catch-up jabs for children.

In relation to the demonstrator sites, Dr Ramsay said that ‘clearly the capacity in general practice has been under pressure’ and that NHS England ‘is looking at ways of supplementing that by bringing in other professionals’.

She said: ‘I would say it’s really important that any of this is done as part of partnerships so that they can look at issues like practice income.

‘The last thing we want is for general practice to not be able to deliver the programme to the bulk of children because these approaches are going to be supplemental, they are not going to replace general practice – at least not in the short term.’

Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair of the RCGP, said maintaining high vaccination rates is a top priority for GPs and their teams – and that the UKHSA’s marketing campaign is timely and vital.

She added that general practice was instrumental to the success of vaccination programmes.

‘GPs have great links in local communities, and trusted relationships with our patients. We have conversations with patients to make sure they understand the importance, effectiveness and safety of vaccinations, such as MMR, and allay any concerns they may have. Many practices, particularly in areas with lower uptake rates, already do a huge amount of outreach work.’

She further warned that it is ‘vital that general practice has sufficient resources and time to get out in the community and have these conversations’.

A version of this story first appeared on our sister title Pulse