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Friday, 1 February, 2002, 23:15 GMT
Measles outbreak fears grow
Fears of a measles outbreak in south London are growing after a series of cases, including one which left a toddler dangerously ill.
Measles has been confirmed in three children, and health officials expect up to 22 others will also test positive for the infection.
The cluster of cases reinforces the danger of measles, which in the most extreme cases - one in 8,000 - can prove fatal.
Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham has a very low uptake figure for the controversial Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Toddler Clara Forbes had to be rushed to intensive care after developing the virus.
She is now recovering, although her mother Hazel said that her condition had been "touch and go" with initial fears that the virus could move to her brain.
Clara, who is 16 months old, should have had her MMR, but her mother had delayed the immunisation.
Mrs Forbes said: "She got measles pneumonia and it almost went into her brain and it was really touch and go."
"My two elder children of three and five had both been vaccinated and she hadn't been vaccinated but she will be the moment she is better.
"I had put it off in December because she had had a cold and I said I'll do it in January or when she is better."
A spokeswoman for White House School in Clapham, which takes children aged two to nine, confirmed to BBC News Online there had been one case of measles at the school.
She added: "We have been giving the parents information which is coming from the health authority."
Public health experts said a cluster of three cases in an area with low MMR uptake was to be expected. However, there will be concern if the number of confirmed cases rise.
On average, there are fewer than 100 cases of measles nationally each year.
Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham Health Authority say the 22 children who are being investigated have symptoms which could be early signs of measles, but which could also be signs of other conditions.
Some in this group are also believed not to have the MMR jab.
Environmental health officers are taking saliva swabs from the children to test for measles. Results are due early next week.
Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham Health Authority said the latest uptake figure for MMR in the three months up to September 2001 in the area is 65%.
The latest figures from the Public Health Laboratory Service for the year from April 2000 to March 2001 show 73% of children in that area had been vaccinated before their second birthday.
The figure for 1990 to 2000 was 76%.
In contrast, the latest national figures, released on Friday, showed an average uptake of 90.9%.
MMR can protect 90% of all children who have had the first vaccination, a second dose raises the level of protection from measles to 99%.
GPs and A&E doctors in Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham have been alerted to the local situation and parents in affected schools have also received letters from the health authority.
It recently emerged that doctors in north Cheshire were concerned because uptake of the MMR vaccine there had fallen to 77%.
This is well below the national average - and about the same level as in Dublin last year when there was a serious measles outbreak.
There have been fears over a link between the MMR vaccine and autism which have deterred some parents from having their children vaccinated.
Lambeth Southwark and Lewisham Health Authority said in a statement: "The health authority is taking this opportunity to remind parents of the need to protect their children from these potentially dangerous childhood diseases and is strongly recommending that all children should have their MMR vaccine which is safe and effective."
The prime minister's official spokesman earlier reinforced Mr Blair's support for the vaccine.
Dr Liam Fox MP, Shadow Health Secretary, said: "The government's immunisation policy is a public health disaster.
"Labour health ministers have simply failed to grasp the importance of establishing public confidence in the MMR vaccine."
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Evan Harris said: "All the evidence is that MMR is safe and effective, while history tells us that measles in unvaccinated populations can be serious and sometimes disabling or even fatal."
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