From autumn, the NHS will stop offering the vaccination for rubella and smallpox as part of a reassessment of its childhood vaccination programme, in a move which could lead to some of the most vulnerable children being left unprotected.
Parents who have not been vaccinated may no longer be eligible to take their child into the clinics. Children who miss out could see their health deteriorate quickly and the NHS in England will face a shortage of vaccines, potentially leading to delays in children’s treatment.
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All children born from July 2001 are entitled to the vaccine for smallpox and the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine and the new definition of risk means they will lose their entitlement if they have been vaccinated but now have a higher risk of infection, such as by travelling to countries where smallpox remains endemic.
It will also mean millions of people who can be vaccinated at any time are effectively excluded from taking part in the vaccination programme, which protects the wider population and children in particular.
It will take time for GPs and vaccination clinics to comply with the new form of risk that is defined under the new regulations and new guidelines that will apply to older children.
The government says all children have the right to get the smallpox vaccine regardless of what country they travel to or where they live.
Even in England, parents do not have the right to know how close they are to the threshold of risk and will still be able to have children vaccinated.
But some parents – including some who are known to be at higher risk due to their lifestyle – will no longer be able to take their children into the vaccine clinics unless they have been “minimally coerced” by the NHS to get a jab for themselves.
Rob Garnham, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Manchester, said: “The changes mean that all children under the age of five in England are entitled to the vaccination for smallpox and the pertussis. The pandemic of smallpox caused the deaths of 300,000 children.
“This change is no surprise. No previously developed vaccine candidate has come close to curing smallpox.
“However, the change does mean that it will no longer be possible to vaccinate all children at risk, and to vaccinate them at reduced cost. The Paediatric Society was very keen to ensure that this change was made. However, the children’s bodies need time to heal and for the virus to change into more dangerous forms, that is many years. It has taken this time to ensure that every child is protected against both smallpox and pertussis.”