Page last updated at 10:46 GMT, Friday, 9 January 2009

'Unprecedented' rise in measles

Immunisation expert Dr Mary Ramsay: 'Every so often it can kill'

There is an "unprecedented increase" in measles cases in England and Wales, experts report.

Data from the Health Protection Agency showed there were 1,217 cases of measles from January to November 2008, the highest figure for over a decade.

And 75% of the 115 cases diagnosed in November were outside the traditional hotspot of London - in the north west, west midlands and south east.

The HPA's Dr Mary Ramsay said the rise was due to "relatively low" MMR uptake.

We are concerned we may see measles epidemics take hold
Dr Mary Ramsay

The number of measles cases in November 2008 was the same as was seen in the whole of 1996.

And even before numbers for December have been recorded, the figures show there were more measles cases in 2008 than in any of the previous 12 years.

Despite the recent surge of cases outside London, over half of the cases last year were in the capital.

As well as outbreaks in nurseries, primary and secondary schools, there have been outbreaks in traveller communities in the west midlands and south east.

The HPA says too few children are receiving both doses of the combined measles, mumps and rubella jab.

Sixty per cent of cases were seen in children aged under 15.

'Not fully protected'

Earlier this week the UK was named as one of the worst countries in Europe for measles, with case levels dashing global hopes of eradicating the disease by 2010.

Measles graph

A Lancet study said that in 2006-7 most of the 12,000 cases in Europe were found in the UK and four other nations.

Dr Mary Ramsay, an immunisation expert at the HPA, said: "We are still experiencing an unprecedented increase in measles cases across the England and Wales.

"This continued rise is due to relatively low MMR vaccine uptake over the past decade and there are now a large number of children who are not fully protected with MMR.

"This means that measles, which is highly infectious, is spreading easily among these unvaccinated children."

She added: "The HPA is concerned that we may see measles epidemics take hold.

"We again are urging parents to get their children vaccinated. Although MMR coverage is starting to improve, we cannot stress enough that measles is serious and in some cases it can be fatal. Delaying immunisation puts children at risk."

Dr Ramsay said around eight out of 10 children were now receiving one dose of MMR by their second birthday.

But she added: "We shouldn't forget that the children who weren't vaccinated many years ago are at real risk."

Serious illness

A Department of Health spokesman said an MMR catch-up programme, which began last August, aimed to help local primary care trusts to identify children who had not been given the jab.

In Scotland, the number of children receiving at least one dose of the MMR jab by the age of five has reached the target of 95% for the first time in December. Northern Ireland saw just four cases of measles last year.

Although most children recover from measles, it can be a serious illness.

One in 10 cases requires hospital treatment and it can lead to pneumonia, brain damage and even death.

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