Baby & Toddler / 24 July, 2023 / Ellie Thompson
TV doctor, GP, and mom, Dr. Sara Kayat expresses her concerns about rising measles cases and offers vital information about the virus. Check your child’s MMR vaccination status at nhs.uk/MMR to protect their health. Stay informed and prevent the spread of measles.
Measles is one of those diseases we don’t tend to worry about anymore because vaccination has worked so well, but the reality is it hasn’t gone away. In fact, cases of measles have more than doubled in England so far this year, compared to the whole of last year, and the numbers are even higher abroad – with cases rising across some areas of Europe.
As we all gear up for the summer holidays, it is incredibly important we make sure our children are protected against this disease. That’s because, during the summer, families are more likely to travel and unprotected children could also be at risk of measles as cases begin to rise.
Measles cases rising
Between 1st January and 30th June, there were 128 cases of measles in England, compared to 54 cases in the whole of 2022. Most of those cases are in London, which means the risk of catching measles here is slightly higher. In fact, the UK Health Security Agency predicts that while the overall risk of measles across the UK is low, there could be outbreaks of 40,000 to 160,000 cases in London alone.
These numbers are concerning, and partly explained by the fall in the number of children having been MMR vaccinated. The number of children vaccinated with two doses of the MMR vaccine is the lowest it has been in a decade, which is particularly worrying. The World Health Organization set 95% of vaccine coverage as its target to prevent outbreaks – and currently, in England, coverage of two MMR doses at age 5 years is around 85%.
The latest national data shows that one in ten five-year-olds are not fully protected against measles. The risk is high in London in particular, with lower vaccination rates meaning that, in some areas, two in five children are not being protected. And it’s not just vaccinated people that benefit from the protection of vaccination. Ensuring as many people as possible are vaccinated helps protect very young infants (under one) and other vulnerable groups who can’t get the jab.
How contagious is measles?
Measles is very, very infectious – and just one infected person can pass measles to nine out of ten unprotected people. While measles spreads very easily, it is preventable. To help protect our family, ourselves and others around us, it is essential we all ensure we are vaccinated with both doses of the MMR vaccine, which is free on the NHS for everyone.
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What is measles?
Measles is an incredibly contagious infection with potentially serious complications, some of which can be fatal. It is one of the most common causes of vaccine-preventable death in the world.
The infection is caused by the measles virus and usually results in an illness characterised by a fever and rash lasting between 7-10 days. It is more common in children, but anyone who has not been vaccinated is susceptible.
How is measles spread?
It is spread via airbourne droplets when those infected by the virus cough or sneeze. The virus can also live on surfaces for up to 2 hours, so they can be passed on by touching a contaminated object.
Most people make a complete recovery but measles can cause serious complications, especially in older children or adults, those with a weakened immune system and pregnant women. Up to 10% of patients who catch measles need to be admitted to hospital, and some rarer complications can be fatal. Measles used to be a common infection in the UK, but has been greatly reduced thanks to public health efforts and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Symptoms of measles
People generally develop symptoms approximately 10 days after becoming infected. The first symptoms usually include:
- Runny nose, sneezing and cough
- Sore throat
- Mild conjunctivitis (red, watery eyes)
- A high temperature
- Greyish-white spots on the inside of the cheeks – known as Koplik spots
It’s so important we keep our little ones fully protected from measles. Among parents, I think there’s often a perception that measles is just a rash, but it is much more than that – it’s a virus that infects the respiratory tract and then spreads through the body. It can start with cold-like symptoms and a high temperature up to several days before a rash appears. In some cases, it can lead to meningitis and sepsis, causing real risk to life. In fact, one in every five cases of measles requires a hospital visit. There is also no specific treatment for measles, making vaccination the best protection for keeping our little ones safe.
At what age measles vaccine is given?
Speaking as both a doctor and a mum, the MMR vaccine is the best possible way to keep our children healthy as measles cases rise. You can find out if your child is protected by checking their red book to see if they are fully vaccinated against this disease. If not, it is important for your child to catch up on any missed doses and you should contact your GP practice.
Young children are offered one MMR vaccine after their first birthday and the second before they start school, usually at around 3 years and 4 months. This is because two doses of the MMR vaccine provides the best possible protection against measles, as well as mumps and rubella. The jabs offer life-long protection, meaning everyone only needs to go through the process once for the benefit of never experiencing any of the diseases.
One important thing to be assured of is that the vaccine is safe. The evidence is extremely clear: since the measles vaccine was introduced in the 1960s, over 20 million cases of measles have been avoided, saving over 4,500 lives – which shows just how effective it is.
Two doses of the MMR vaccine are all it takes to give the best protection against the illness and by preventing the spread of measles we can ensure everyone can safely enjoy their holidays both at home and abroad.
Check your child’s red book
Check your child’s red book today to make sure they are up to date with their vaccinations, and make an appointment with their GP practice to catch them up with any missed dosses of MMR.
And don’t forget to contact your GP practice to check your own vaccination record and make an appointment to catch up on any missed doses, too!
To find out more, visit nhs.uk/MMR.
Article by Dr. Sara Kayat