11 July 2018

Measles is back, despite UK’s best efforts

Communicable Disease Immunology Public Health

The UK is in the grip of a measles outbreak, less than a year after the WHO announced the virus had been eliminated in the island nation.

Public Health England has declared a “national measles incident” after recording a sharp rise in infections across most parts of the country.

Laboratory-confirmed cases in England reached 728 in the first six months of this year, more than double 274 cases in all of 2017.

“This is so disheartening when we consider how close we came to completely eradicating this unpleasant infectious illness and achieving medicine’s ultimate goal of confining this awful disease to the history books,” Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said.

PHE has put GPs on alert, saying young adults were most at risk of catching measles, owing to a dip in MMR immunisation rates following false claims about links between the MMR jab and autism in the late 1990s.

The UK has now achieved the WHO target of 95% vaccine coverage in five-year-olds.  But the figure fell to a low of 80% in 2003, after former doctor Andrew Wakefield published fraudulent research about MMR in 1998.

“The latest figures would appear to indicate that we are still feeling the impact,” Professor Stokes-Lampard said.

PHE said “significant numbers” of unprotected teenagers and young adults could catch measles both in England, particularly at events such as summer festivals, and when they travelled abroad for summer holidays.

Most recent cases in the UK have been linked to travel to and from European countries with historically low MMR vaccine coverage, such as Romania, France, Greece and Italy, according to a report in the BMJ.

It said 48 measles deaths had been reported in the European Union since 2016.