Measles: Why are cases rising and what is the MMR vaccine?

Measles: Why are cases rising and what is the MMR vaccine?

Image source, Getty Images

A new government campaign will remind parents in England about the serious risks of diseases like measles if children are not vaccinated.

Measles cases have been rising since late 2023, with clusters in a number of regions, including the West Midlands and London.

What is measles and what are the symptoms?

Measles is a highly contagious disease which is spread by coughs and sneezes.

  • high fever
  • sore, red and watery eyes
  • coughing
  • sneezing

Small white spots may appear inside the mouth.

A blotchy red or brown rash usually appears after a few days, typically on the face and behind the ears, before spreading to the rest of the body.

It can be harder to see on brown and black skin.

Measles normally clears up within seven to 10 days. However, it can lead to pneumonia, meningitis, blindness and seizures.

Babies and young children, pregnant women and those with a weakened immune system are at increased risk.

Measles can be fatal, but this is rare.

Can adults get measles and can you catch it twice?

You can catch measles at any age. It is possible – but highly unlikely – to catch it twice as the body builds up immunity to the disease after being infected.

Getting it while pregnant can lead to stillbirth, miscarriage or babies being born small.

Image source, Getty Images

How common is measles, and where are the worst outbreaks?

There were 1,603 suspected cases of measles in England and Wales in 2023, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) – a sharp rise from 735 cases in 2022 and 360 in 2021.

  • 66% (381) in the West Midlands
  • 14% (83) in London
  • 7% (43) in Yorkshire and The Humber
  • 13% (74) in other regions of England

Just under two-thirds of these cases (65%) were in children under the age of 10, while 27% involved young people and adults over the age of 15.

Case numbers have been extremely high in the West Midlands, but the UKHSA says these appear to be stabilising.

More than 42,000 people were infected in 2023, compared to 941 during the whole of 2022.

Why are measles cases rising?

The number of young primary school children who have had both doses of the MMR vaccine is below WHO targets.

Approximately 85% of children in 2022-23 had received two MMR doses by their fifth birthday, the lowest level since 2010-11. The recommended figure is 95%.

In some cities, including Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham, only 75% of five-year-olds are fully vaccinated, NHS figures show.

It means more than 3.4 million children in England aged under 16 are unprotected.

The WHO said vaccination rates have also fallen across Europe, leaving more than 1.8 million children at risk.

Image source, UKHSA

In a video which will run on TV, radio and online, children tell their parents and carers: “If we’re not vaccinated, we’re not protected.”

Child health experts say some parents have underestimated the seriousness of measles because it had largely been eradicated.

In addition, many routine health appointments were missed during the Covid pandemic.

There are also still people who wrongly believe the MMR jab is linked to autism.

Researcher Andrew Wakefield claimed the two were connected in 1998.

Some unvaccinated young adults missed out when they were children because fears about the jab persisted despite being disproven.

How can I get the MMR vaccine?

Measles vaccinations were introduced in the UK in 1968. The current two-dose MMR vaccine started in 1996 and is very effective.

However, adults and children can have the MMR jab at any point via their GP.

Image source, Getty Images

People who do not eat pork products can request an alternative jab called Priorix.

If the MMR is not suitable, someone at immediate risk of catching measles can have a treatment called human normal immunoglobulin (HNIG).

What are the side effects of the MMR jab?

Most MMR side effects are mild.

The injection site can be red, sore and swollen for a few days.

Babies and young children may develop a high temperature for up to 72 hours.

Incident Room: Measles Outbreak: Why now?

Health experts examine why the virus is back and what can be done to get rid of it?

What should you do if you get measles?

The NHS advises patients to:

  • take paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve fever, aches and pains – aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years old
  • rest and drink plenty of fluids
  • wash their hands regularly with soap, and clean their eyes with damp cotton wool
  • put used tissues and cotton wool in the bin

You should go to A&E or phone 999 if you or your child:

  • have shortness of breath
  • have a high temperature that does not come down with paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • are coughing up blood
  • feel drowsy or confused
  • have fits (convulsions)

Pregnant women or those with a weakened immune system should seek urgent medical advice after contact with someone with measles.

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