Immunisation levels for measles, mumps and rubella in England have reached their highest recorded coverage since the Wakefield scandal in the late 1990s.
In the past year, 91.2% of children had received their first dose of the MMR vaccine by their second birthday - a rise from 89.1% in 2010-11, according to new data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre.
This is the first time coverage has passed 90% since 1997-98 (when it was 90.8%) and is 0.6% points away from a coverage peak recorded in 1995-96 (91.8%).
In 1998 the British doctor Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet that suggested a strong link between the MMR vaccine and rates of autism and bowel disease in children. UK media coverage caused a storm of controversy over the issue, and researchers and the government could do little to persuade some parents that the MMR jab was safe.
Media coverage of the issue hit a peak in 2001-2, and vaccination levels of the combined vaccine fell dramatically to less than 80% a year later. It is thought this then contributed to outbreaks of measles in some parts of the country.
Since then, however, Dr Wakefield’s work has publicly been retracted by The Lancet, and he was struck off from the General Medical Council in 2010, which is believed to have helped return rates back to the levels before 1998.
While rates are returning to pre-Wakefield levels, they are still some way off the 95% of children that the World Health Organization says should be vaccinated in order to create herd immunity against the three diseases. England’s rates of immunisation for MMR also remain lower than the rest of the UK, the HSCIC notes.
HSCIC chief executive Tim Straughan said: “[The] report marks a significant point in the continued rise of MMR coverage since it hit a low in 2003-04 – as for the first time in 14 years, nine out of 10 children in England have had the MMR vaccine before they turn two. However, although MMR coverage at two years has risen in all regions of England, and overall the country's coverage has increased in recent years, the national figure remains below the World Health Organization target of at least 95%.”