Get the measles vaccine to avoid rapid spread, UK health chief says

Get the measles vaccine to avoid rapid spread, UK health chief says

  • By Jacqueline Howard and Philippa Roxby, health correspondent
  • BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

Measles is likely to spread rapidly across larger parts of the UK unless more people take the vaccine, a senior health official has warned.

Dame Jenny Harris, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), says vaccination rates are “significantly lower” than recommended by the World Health Organization.

Temporary clinics are being introduced to vaccinate more children as cases continue to rise.

Measles is a highly contagious disease.

It is spread by coughing and sneezing. More than 200 cases have been confirmed in the West Midlands in recent months, most of them in Birmingham.

Ms Jenny expressed concern that without urgent action, we are likely to see the measles virus “spread and spread rapidly” in other cities and towns with low vaccine uptake.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The focus this morning is on the West Midlands, but I think the real issue is that we need a call to action across the country.”

The UK Health Services Agency (UKHSA) has now declared the measles outbreak a national incident, allowing it to allocate more resources to tackling the problem.

In some areas of London, such as Hackney, nearly half of children have not been fully vaccinated against the disease.

The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is given in two doses, the first at 12 months of age, and the second at around three years and four months, before children start school.

Ms Jenny said the UK had previously achieved measles elimination, but vaccination rates had now fallen.

“On average, only about 85% of children reach school after taking both MMR doses,” she said.

NHS figures show that taking two MMR doses by age five was considered too low in some areas in 2022-23:

  • 74% in London
  • 83.7% in the West Midlands
  • 85.1% in the northwest

The World Health Organization recommends that at least 95% of the population be covered by two doses of vaccination because measles is highly contagious and spreads easily.

But in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham, only 75% of five-year-olds are in this situation.

What is the reason for the decline in vaccinations?

It’s too easy to blame anti-vaccine sentiment for the current measles outbreak, says Helen Bedford, professor of child health at University College London.

Access to GPs, reductions in the number of trained staff who can answer parents’ questions about vaccines and the challenge of making and accessing appointments are all factors for families with young children, she says.

The pandemic has also had an impact, with “some parents afraid to go to clinics for fear of contracting Covid or because they were not aware that vaccination services were continuing,” Professor Bedford adds.

In London, mobile vaccination clinics have been set up to increase vaccine uptake in the Camden borough, where one in four children start school late for the MMR vaccination.

Kirsten Watters, Camden Council’s director of health and wellbeing, said the clinics provide a convenient place for busy parents to tick their list.

She said: “When talking to parents, we find that most of them intend to vaccinate their children. We have high levels of confidence, but they find it difficult to organize appointments and reach these vaccination clinics.” Today’s programme.

“People have forgotten how miserable it is to have measles,” Ms. Jenny said.

“I’m actually from the generation that had measles, and I can’t remember much of my childhood, but I can remember it and it’s pretty miserable,” she said.

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases affecting humans. On average, in low-protection communities, one person will spread the virus to 15 others.

This makes it much more infectious than the coronavirus, which has an R number, or reproduction number, of around 3.

R is a way to evaluate a disease’s ability to spread.

Where can I get the vaccine?

The advice is to ask your GP about the MMR vaccine if your child misses either dose.

Older children and adults can also follow up on doses at any time by making an appointment through their GP.

Young people going to university or college and anyone in their 20s who missed out as a child are also urged to apply.

The standard MMR vaccine contains pork-derived ingredients, but those who don’t eat pork products can order an alternative version called Priorix from their GP.

What happens if I get measles?

Measles is recognized by a high temperature, a red or brown rash, blistering, red eyes, coughing and sneezing.

It usually goes away after seven to 10 days, however, it can lead to serious problems if it affects other parts of the body, such as the lungs or brain.

Complications can include pneumonia, meningitis, blindness, and seizures.

Infants, young children, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems are most at risk.

People infected with measles remain contagious until at least four days after the rash appears.

Those with mild symptoms are asked not to visit their GP or hospital but to call the NHS on 111 or get help online.

They should also stay away from nursery, school, university, work and other group activities while they are infectious.

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