Measles cases are surging, prompting a warning to parents to make sure children are fully vaccinated against the potentially deadly disease.
Measles is highly infectious and can result in “life-changing complications”, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
Despite the seriousness of the illness, vaccination rates have been falling.
If that trend isn’t reversed, outbreaks of the virus are likely to spread, the UKHSA warns.
What are the symptoms of the virus, what threat does it pose – and why are some people hesitant to get the vaccine?
What are the symptoms of measles?
The first symptoms of measles include:
• A high temperature
• A runny or blocked nose
• A cough
• Red, sore or watery eyes
Cold-like symptoms are followed a few days later by a rash, which starts on the face and behind the ears, before it spreads.
The spots are usually raised and can join together to form blotchy patches which are not usually itchy.
Some people may get small spots in their mouth too.
What are the potential complications?
Measles can lead to serious problems if it spreads to the lungs or brain and in rare cases can result in death.
About 1 in 5 people with measles will need hospital treatment and 1 in 15 will develop severe complications.
Measles can cause deafness, fits, pneumonia, meningitis, blindness and brain damage.
People at higher risk of complications include babies and young children, pregnant women, and people with weakened immunity.
Around one in 5,000 individuals with measles is likely to die. Since 2006 there have been three measles deaths in the UK.
What is the MMR jab?
The measles vaccination is combined with protecting against mumps and rubella in the MMR jab. It is considered to be safe and highly effective.
The MMR vaccine was introduced to the UK in 1988 and a measles vaccine has been available since 1968.
There used to be between 160,000 and 800,000 cases a year in England and Wales, and around 100 people died from acute measles annually.
But since the vaccine was introduced in 1968, it is estimated that 20 million cases and 4,500 deaths have been prevented.
Two doses of the MMR vaccine are given, providing lifelong protection. The first dose is usually offered to babies aged one, with the second dose given at three years and four months.
If either dose has been missed, you can still ask your GP for the vaccine.
Parents of children aged six to 11 will be contacted to make an appointment for any missed jabs as part of a nationwide drive to increase uptake.
Pop-up vaccination clinics will be held at schools and other convenient places, while GPs, teachers and trusted community leaders will encourage groups that are less likely to get their jab to come forward.
Falling vaccine rates, rising cases
There were 1,603 suspected cases of measles in England and Wales in 2023 – an increase from 735 in 2022 and just 360 the year before.
Things have been particularly bad in the West Midlands, where cases are the highest they’ve been since the mid-1990s.
There have been 216 confirmed cases and 103 probable cases in the West Midlands since 1 October, with 80% of cases in Birmingham and about 10% in Coventry.
The surge comes as vaccination coverage for under-fives sits at its lowest rate in 10 years.
The UKHSA revealed the uptake for the first dose of the MMR vaccine in children aged two in England is 89% and for two MMR doses in children aged five, the rate is 85%. This is well below the 95% target set by the WHO.
The UKHSA has warned more outbreaks in other places are likely unless “urgent action” is taken to get more children vaccinated.
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When and why did people stop vaccinating?
In 1998, a study by British doctor Andrew Wakefield was published in The Lancet linking the MMR vaccine to autism.
The study was discredited, but not before causing mass hysteria over the safety of the vaccine after the study received global media coverage.
MMR immunisations in the UK fell to about 80% nationally in the late 1990s and early 2000s and took many years to recover.
In 2006, measles transmission became re-established in the UK, and in 2007, cases of measles exceeded 1,000 for the first time in 10 years.
The Lancet retracted Wakefield’s study in 2010, and he was struck off the UK medical register.
Why are vaccination numbers still low?
Fears about the link to autism have persisted despite being proven false, and vaccine hesitancy has been fuelled by misinformation on social media.
The pandemic also had an effect on vaccine uptake, as accessing clinics became more complicated and some parents became concerned about using NHS services.
It is also thought some parents mistakenly believing measles is not serious leads to them not getting their child vaccinated.