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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 08:42 GMT
Fears of measles outbreak
There are fears parents may turn away from the vaccine
Four children in the Tyneside area are suspected to have developed measles.

The cases come as test results are awaited on 22 children suspected of developing the disease in south London. Three cases in the area have already been confirmed.

Health officials have been warning that parents' refusal to have their children immunised with the controversial measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine could lead to a big jump in the number of cases of the diseases.

The latest developments come as a poll finds that 85% of parents believe the NHS should offer a choice between MMR and three individual jabs.

The new suspected cases are in Gateshead and South Tyneside.

Lowest MMR coverage - % (2000 - 01)
Bexley & Greenwich - 73
Bromley - 73
Lambeth, Southwark & Lewisham - 73
Kensington, Chelsea & Westminster - 74
Merton, Sutton & Wandsworth - 75

Samples from four children have been sent to the Public Health Laboratory, in London, for further tests, and it will be early next week before the results are known.

Gill Sanders, director of public health for Gateshead and South Tyneside Health Authority, said: "Four children are suspected of having measles.

"That is not unusual at this time of year, we do get reported suspected cases. We will have to investigate them and find out if it is measles."

'It's safe'

She stressed that the MMR jab was safe.

Dr Gill Sanders
Dr Gill Sanders said vaccination rates were relatively high
She said: "What parents are struggling with is that they haven't seen the benefits of immunisation, because a lot of these diseases are not common in families or communities.

"They are very concerned when they hear the media talk about possible adverse effects, and they just delay the decision.

"It is important that if we have a safe vaccine that works, that covers three diseases, that offers protection, then we should try to allay those fears."

She said the average local immunisation rate was 92% - just below the recommended level of 95%. However, there were isolated communities were the rate was lower.

If I thought there was a safer alternative to MMR I would sanction it

Health Secretary Alan Milburn
"This is where the risk of developing measles is very high."

Ten days ago, Durham Health Authority said there had been four confirmed cases in its area in the previous two months.

In England and Wales last year, there were a total of 2,466 suspected cases of measles reported and 74 cases confirmed.

Not unusual

A Department of Health spokeswoman said the cases in Tyneside were not unusual.

Highest MMR coverage - % (2000 - 01)
North Cumbria - 95
Northumberland - 95
Leicestershire - 95
Barnsley - 94
North Derbyshire - 94
She said: "This is a small local outbreak which that health authority is managing."

Health Secretary Alan Milburn admitted: "I know there are real concerns about this among many parents.

"But the vaccine is the safest way of protecting children against what can be potentially life-threatening conditions. This advice applies across the world.

"If I thought there was a safer alternative to MMR I would sanction it."

During the MMR controversy Downing Street has refused to say whether Tony Blair's son Leo has been given the MMR vaccine.

Dr Robert Aston, consultant in communicable diseases for Wigan and Bolton Health Authority, told the BBC he was "saddened" by the campaign by anti-vaccine groups and some of the media "systematically to undermine confidence in what is in fact one of our safest and more effective vaccines".

He added there was no evidence to link MMR and autism: "Anything that precedes a childhood illness for which we don't know the cause can be blamed on MMR, or on anything that preceded it."

But Judith Barnard of the National Autistic Society said the government urgently needed to address parents' concerns about MMR.

She said: "Parents have a right to protect their children from diseases such as measles.

"The government should make single vaccinations available to those who want them until such time as the necessary research to put people's minds at rest has been carried out"

The BBC's Karen Allen
"Parents are being bombarded with mixed health messages"
Gill Sanders, South Tyneside Health Authority
"Up and down the country doctors are very concerned"
See also:

03 Feb 02 | Health
New research fuels MMR debate
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