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World Health Organisation issues fresh warning over measles

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued a fresh warning over measles after an almost 45-fold rise in cases across Europe.

Experts from the organisation said Europe is seeing an “alarming rise” in the spread of the disease, which has “accelerated in recent months”.

Some 42,200 cases were reported by member states in 2023, almost 45 times the 941 cases in 2022.

Two in five cases were in children aged one to four, while one in five were among people aged 20 and over.

The rising trend is expected to continue if people do not vaccinate their children against the disease, WHO said.

It comes after the UK launched its own campaigns to encourage parents to get the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine for their children.

Measles can lead to serious complications, lifelong disability and death.

It can affect the lungs and brain and cause pneumonia, meningitis, blindness and seizures.

Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said: “Vaccination is the only way to protect children from this potentially dangerous disease.

HEALTH Measles
(PA Graphics)

“Urgent vaccination efforts are needed to halt transmission and prevent further spread.

“It is vital that all countries are prepared to rapidly detect and timely respond to measles outbreaks, which could endanger progress towards measles elimination.”

WHO said that sliding vaccination rates were to blame, but more people were now travelling abroad after Covid-19, increasing the risk of cross-border disease transmission and spread within communities.

On Friday, the head of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned the UK is on a “trajectory for everything getting much worse” when it comes to measles spreading,

Professor Dame Jenny Harries told the PA news agency that “concerted action” is needed to tackle the virus, as she visited a measles blackspot in the West Midlands.

She suggested the majority of people are not against their child receiving the MMR jab, but that they need more information to feel confident about their decision.

She added: “What we are seeing at the moment with measles is that people have forgotten what a serious illness it is…

“We have had very high vaccination rates, especially for young families, but they are low at the moment.”

Vaccination rates across the country have been dropping, but there are particular concerns about some regions, including parts of London and the West Midlands.

Figures released by the UKHSA on Friday showed there have been 216 confirmed measles cases and 103 probable cases in the West Midlands since October 1 last year.

Four-fifths (80%) have been found in Birmingham while 10% were identified in Coventry, with the majority being in children aged under 10.

The UKHSA has declared a national incident, which it said is an internal mechanism signalling the growing public health risk and enabling it to focus work in specific areas.

Official figures show uptake of the vaccine is at its lowest point in more than a decade.

In 2022/23, some 84.5% of youngsters in England had received both doses of the jab by the time they were five years old – the lowest level since 2010/11. Some 92.5% had received one dose.

The measles virus can cause serious illness and even disability (Cynthia Goldsmith/Centres for Disease Control and Prevention/PA)
The measles virus can cause serious illness and even disability (Cynthia Goldsmith/Centres for Disease Control and Prevention/PA)

Mike Tildesley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the University of Warwick and an expert in disease spread and Covid, said the R number for measles – the number of people that one infected person will pass the illness on to – is much higher than for Covid.

“This means we need over 90% of the population to be immune or you’re going to start seeing cases growing,” he said.

“We have childhood vaccinations for measles which for many years have helped us to get rid of the disease.

“Unfortunately, if those vaccination levels drop then we will start to see cases going up and that’s what we are seeing at the moment.”