The refusal of many parents in the United Kingdom to have their children vaccinated in the fear that the shots could lead to autism or other problems may have put their children in danger of a different health threat -- that of infectious disease.
Despite mounting evidence against any link between vaccines and disorders such as autism and inflammatory bowel disease, researchers at the UCL Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London found that many parents in the United Kingdom still refuse to have their children vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella.
The researchers studied immunization data on 14,578 U.K. children born between 2000 and 2002.
What they found was that in 1995, 92 percent of U.K. children had received their MMR immunization on schedule, but this number dropped sharply to 79 percent in 2003 following a 1998 report in the journal Lancet that linked the vaccine to autism.
Despite the fact that this initial report suggesting a vaccine-autism link was subsequently withdrawn at the request of most of the study's authors, the fallout from this research remains.
The researchers noted that even though the number of children receiving the MMR vaccine is climbing again, currently only 88.6 percent of U.K. children had received their MMR immunizations. Doctors say that 95 percent of people must be vaccinated to fully protect a population.
The new study is currently published in the online version of the British Medical Journal.
More worrying, the researchers reported that the number of measles cases is on the rise. Rates of confirmed measles cases increased by more than 17 times -- from 56 cases to 971 cases -- from 1998 to 2007. One 13-year-old boy who was not vaccinated against MMR died last year after contracting measles.
According to Helen Bedford, lead study investigator and senior lecturer at the Center for Pediatric Epidemiology and Biostatistics, the reason for this fallout is due in great part to the wealth of inaccurate information circulating the Internet on the false vaccine-autism link.
"There is evidence that there is no link [between vaccines and autism], and there has never been any good research to show a link to autism and bowel disease," Bedford said. "But parents do get very concerned and want to protect their children, and sometimes they look to the Internet for information because it's readily available there.
"But if you do an ordinary Internet search for the MMR vaccine, you get a lot of Web sites that come up that have inaccurate and frightening information."
Rather than taking the advice of British health officials or the government to immunize all children at the age of 13 months for MMR and again right before the child starts school, researchers found that many parents have taken the issue into their own hands by immunizing their child for just one of the diseases instead of all three.
Researchers found that 5.2 percent of children received at least one of the single vaccines. Of the 634 children who received at least one of these vaccines, only about half -- 52 percent -- had received all three covered by the MMR vaccine.