Cases of measles are on the rise in England, data has revealed, with public health experts calling for children, teenagers and adults to take up free vaccinations against the potentially deadly disease.
Measles was considered eliminated in the UK in 2016 and 2017, meaning transmission had stopped, but by 2018 it was spreading once more, with 880 confirmed cases in 2019 alone.
Covid restrictions imposed during the pandemic meant measles cases subsequently fell, with data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) revealing just two confirmed measles cases in 2021 and 54 in 2022.
Now experts have said that measles cases are rising once more: according to the UKHSA, between 1 January and 2 April this year, 49 cases of measles were confirmed in England, about two-thirds of which were in London.
Experts are calling for parents and guardians to ensure their children are up to date with their vaccinations, whatever their age. This can be done by checking their red book or contacting their GP.
The measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (known as the MMR jab) is given to children in two doses, with the first administered at one year old and the second at three years and four months.
However, Dr Vanessa Saliba, a consultant epidemiologist at UKHSA, said it was never too late to catch up on vaccinations, with the jabs free on the NHS.
“Measles spreads very easily and can lead to complications that require a stay in hospital and on rare occasions can cause lifelong disability or death, so it is very concerning to see cases starting to pick up this year,” she said.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic we saw a fall in uptake for the routine childhood vaccinations, including MMR which leaves us vulnerable to outbreaks, especially as people travel abroad for summer holidays to places where measles is more common.”
Overall, 40% of the confirmed cases so far in 2023 were in children younger than five, while 27% of cases were among people aged 15 to 34 years. Although some cases were imported from abroad, others were down to community transmission.
Measles can begin with cold-like symptoms, followed by a rash, but the NHS warns it can cause serious problems in some people, including meningitis and blindness.
The NHS director of vaccinations and screening, Steve Russell, said that since vaccination for measles was introduced, more than 4,500 lives had been saved.
“The MMR vaccine has helped prevent the development of potentially life-threatening illness among millions, and it is clear that when uptake falls, infections rise, so I strongly urge parents to review the status of their child’s vaccinations so they can keep them and others protected from measles, mumps and rubella,” he said.
Helen Bedford, a professor of child public health at University College London, said the latest figures were worrying but not surprising, given a decline in MMR vaccine uptake in recent years.
According to the UKHSA, uptake of two MMR doses in children aged five years in England is 85%.
“Measles is so highly infectious that even a small decline in uptake can result in outbreaks – we need to maintain uptake of 95% of two doses of MMR vaccine to prevent such outbreaks,” said Bedford.
“It is very worrying that there is a lot of measles in Europe, with the UK fourth of the top 10 countries with the highest numbers of measles cases, this leaves the potential for importation of measles or picking it up during travel abroad – as indicated by UKHSA data.”