In 1959, at the age of 29, the promising England footballer Jeff Hall died of polio. His death sent shock waves across Britain, and caused an immediate change in attitudes towards vaccination, from complacency to a sudden rush to clinics. A polio vaccine had been available for three years, but takeup was low. After Hall’s death, the demand was so high that vaccines had to be flown in from the US. As the Daily Express put it: “In the past 10 years over 3,000 people have died of polio in England and Wales. But it took the death of one footballer to get [people] pouring into the clinics.” More than half a century later, we may be returning to complacency when it comes to getting children vaccinated.
The past decade has seen a decline in the uptake of almost all routine vaccinations for children in England. Currently, no childhood vaccinations meet the 95% target set by the World Health Organization. The US has a similar shortfall, and the WHO warns that the long-term decline in childhood vaccination rates is a global phenomenon. Here, the consequences have been increased cases of vaccine-preventable diseases such as whooping cough in nurseries and schools, as well as a rising number of polio samples found in sewage in London.