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From the BBC website 19 January 2024

Measles is likely to spread rapidly across more parts of the UK unless more people take up the vaccine, a senior health official has warned.

Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), says vaccination rates are “well below” what is recommended by the World Health Organization.

Measles is a highly contagious disease.

It is spread by coughs and sneezes. More than 200 cases have been confirmed in the West Midlands in recent months, mostly in Birmingham.

Dame Jenny has expressed concern that, without urgent action, we are likely to see the measles virus “seeding and spreading rapidly” in other cities and towns with low vaccine uptake.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “The focus this morning is on the West Midlands, but I think the real issue is we need a call to action right across the country.”

Why are measles cases rising and what are the symptoms?
The UKHSA has now declared the measles outbreak a national incident, allowing it to put more resources into tackling the problem.

In some areas of London, like Hackney, nearly half of children have not been fully vaccinated against it.

The vaccine, the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) jab, is delivered in two doses, the first given at 12 months, and the second at about three years and four months, before children start school.

Dame Jenny said the UK had previously established an elimination status for measles, but vaccination rates had now dropped.

“On average about only 85% of children are arriving at school having had the two MMR doses,” she said.

NHS figures show uptake of both MMR doses by the age of five was considered very low in some areas in 2022-23:

74% in London
83.7% in West Midlands
85.1% in the North West
WHO recommends two-dose vaccination coverage of at least 95% of the population because measles is highly infectious and spreads easily.

But in cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham only 75% of five-year-olds are in that position.

What is causing the drop in vaccinations?
It is too easy to blame anti-vaccine sentiment for current measles outbreaks, says Helen Bedford, professor of children’s health at University College London.

Access to GPs, cuts to trained staff who can answer parents questions about vaccines and the challenge of making and getting to appointments are all factors for families with young children, she says.

The pandemic also had an impact, with “some parents afraid to attend clinics for fear of catching Covid or because they were not clear that vaccination services were continuing”, Prof Bedford adds.

Kirsten Watters, Camden Council’s director of health and wellbeing, said;

“When talking to parents, we find most do intend to vaccinate their child, we’ve got high levels of confidence and trust, it’s just that they’re finding it difficult to organise appointments and get to those vaccination clinics,” she told the Today programme.

‘Absolutely miserable’
People have forgotten how miserable it is to contract measles, Dame Jenny said.

“I’m actually the generation that had measles, and I can’t remember much from my childhood, but I can remember it and it is absolutely miserable,” she said.

Measles is one of the most infectious diseases in humans. On average, in communities with low protection, one person will spread the virus to 15 others.

That makes it far more infectious than coronavirus, which has an R or reproduction number of about 3.

The R is a way of rating a disease’s ability to spread.

Where can I get a vaccine?
Ask your SurreyGP doctor for the MMR vaccine if your child has missed either of the two doses.

Older children and adults can also catch up on the jabs at any point by making an appointment with SurreyGP.

Young people starting college or university and anyone in their 20s who may have missed out as a child are urged to come forward too.

What happens if you catch measles?
Measles is recognised by a high fever, a blotchy red or brown rash, sore, red and watery eyes, coughing and sneezing.

It normally clears up after seven to 10 days, however, it can lead to serious problems if it infects other parts of the body, such as the lungs or brain.

Complications can include pneumonia, meningitis, blindness and seizures.

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

People with measles are infectious until at least four days after the rash appears.

Those with mild symptoms are asked not to visit their GP or hospital but to call the NHS on 111 or get help online.

They should also stay away from nursery, school, university, work and other group activities while they are infectious.