More than a decade ago, British parents refused to give measles shots to at least a million children because of now discredited research that linked the vaccine to autism. Now, health officials are scrambling to catch up and stop a growing epidemic of the contagious disease.
This year, the U.K. has had more than 1,200 cases of measles, after a record number of nearly 2,000 cases last year. The country once recorded only several dozen cases every year. It now ranks second in Europe, behind only Romania.
Last month, emergency vaccination clinics were held every weekend in Wales, the epicenter of the outbreak. Immunization drives have also started elsewhere in the country, with officials aiming to reach 1 million children aged 10 to 16.
“This is the legacy of the Wakefield scare,” said Dr. David Elliman, spokesman for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, referring to a paper published in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues that is widely rejected by scientists.
That work suggested a link between autism and the combined childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella, called the MMR. Several large scientific studies failed to find any connection, the theory was rejected by at least a dozen major U.K. medical groups and the paper was eventually retracted by the journal that published it.
Nearly 15 years later, the rumors about MMR are still having an impact. Now there’s “this group of older children who have never been immunized who are a large pool of infections,” Elliman said.
The majority of those getting sick in the U.K. — including a significant number of older children and teens — had never been vaccinated. Almost 20 of the more than 100 seriously ill children have been hospitalized and 15 have suffered complications including pneumonia and meningitis. One adult with measles has died, though it’s unclear if it was the disease that killed him.