Anxiety over children's vaccinations by Pavel Barter
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Children around the country are at risk from a potential measles epidemic, according to Irish public health officials. The uptake for vaccinations against measles, mumps and rubella are monitored by health boards and the latest statistics (for the third quarter of 2001) reveal that there has been a sharp fall-off in immunisation for children under the age of two.

Gay Mitchell of the National Disease Surveillance Centre (NDSC) said that that poor uptake of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was creating a "critical mass" of vulnerable children. "The NDSC advises that vaccination rates should be in excess of 95 per cent but the average uptake in the in the State is now 70 per cent and as low as 60 per cent in the eastern region," he said.

NDSC director Dr Darina O'Flanagan said the fall in the number of vaccinated children to under 60 per cent in the Eastern Region Health Authority was a major cause of concern to the centre. Measles is a highly contagious disease, spreading rapidly amongst non-immunised children, and the outbreak in 2000 (which caused three deaths and over 1,500 cases around Ireland) is evidence of what can happen when an insufficient proportion of the population has been immunised. During the 2000 outbreak, pneumonia, eye and ear infections, brain inflammation and damage were among the complications which arose from measles.

In the Cork and Kerry regions the number of children being vaccinated is a little higher (around 74 per cent) than in other counties, but the consistent decline in immunisation is worrying health officials nonetheless. In less than a year the use of vaccination in Kerry has fallen by 13 per cent. "If children are denied immunisation they are at risk of contracting serious vaccine-preventable infections," said Dr Elizabeth Keane, Director of Public Health with the Southern Health Board.

Health officials have attributed the drop in vaccinations to mounting anxiety over controversial research suggesting a possible link between the MMR jab and autism and bowel disease. But Dr O'Flanagan dismissed these fears and pointed to research from the US, Britain, Sweden and Finland showing there was no connection.

Implementing MMR has also been hampered by difficulties in the payments systems for GPs, who are administering the vaccine. Some GPs have claimed that the payment system is inadequate.

Medical experts have warned parents away from choosing separate vaccines which may expose children to disease while they await completion of the treatment programme. The first MMR shot, given between 12 and 15 months, is supposed to give 92 per cent protection against measles and the booster before the age of five gives another 7 per cent of protection. An NDSC sub-committee recently recommended in a draft report that all children aged over 15 months in daycare centres, nurseries and schools should have certificates to show they have received the MMR vaccination.

The controversy over decreasing MMR uptake is also raging in the UK, where Prime Minister Tony Blair has tried to persuade a deeply sceptical public that the jab is not linked to autism and bowel disease. There have been reports that Blair's infant son Leo has had the MMR vaccine, although this has not been confirmed.

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