12 February 2013
Outbreaks of measles across England and Wales have reached the highest levels for 18 years, with young adults and teenagers who were not immunised in the late 1990s most at risk.
Despite cases of measles, a highly infectious illness, being rare in the UK, they have crept up in recent years. Last week the Health Protection Agency (HPA) confirmed there were 2,016 measles cases in England and Wales in 2012, the highest annual total since 1994.
So why are cases so high? And what treatment and prevention options are available?
What is measles?
Measles is a very infectious illness – 90 per cent of people without immunity who share living space with an infected person will catch it – that can in extreme cases lead to blindness and even death.
The illness, spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, is most common in young children, although anyone can get it if they haven't been vaccinated or had it before.
Symptoms of measles include:
Red eyes and sensitivity to light
Greyish white spots in the mouth and throat
A red-brown spotty rash (after a few days) covering the head and neck before the legs and the rest of the body
Why are cases of measles so high?
While cases of measles in the UK are rare given the success of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, it is thought the current spike in cases is linked to the MMR scare of 1998.
Back then, a study of 12 children by Dr Andrew Wakefield published in The Lancet medical journal linked MMR to the development of autism.
It is important to note that the claims have been discredited, with two other studies published after Dr Wakefield's report failing to show any link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Nevertheless, at the time many parents did not get their child vaccinated with MMR, most likely due to speculation linking MMR to autism.
Speaking to the Guardian, Dr Ken Lamden, a consultant in communicable disease control in Cumbria and Lancashire's health protection unit, said: "It all dates back to the 1998 MMR scandal where take-up dropped by ten per cent.
"Once measles occurs in these groups, it's so infectious it can be passed to any group."
Prevention and treatment
The only way to prevent outbreaks of measles is to vaccinate young children. Parents are advised to protect against measles with two doses of the MMR vaccine – one at babies between 12 and 13 months old, the other (the 'booster' dose) before they start school.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the HPA, said: "Parents should ensure their children are fully protected against measles, mumps and rubella with two doses of the MMR vaccine. Parents of unvaccinated children, as well as older teenagers and adults who may have missed MMR vaccination, should make an appointment with their GP to get vaccinated."
For those who get measles, there is no specific treatment and the illness will run its course until the body's immune system fights it off. Unless there are complications, symptoms typically disappear within seven to ten days.
Posted by Edward Bartel
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