We have had some fantastic news recently. More children have been vaccinated against measles and the number of measles infections has reduced. This means that we are getting back on track towards eliminating the disease. Measles has been relatively rare in England in the recent past and therefore many of us don’t realise any more how serious it is. Worldwide everyday 330 children die of measles and its complications and measles is so contagious that if one person has it they can pass it on to an average of 17 other people if they are not protected. Luckily, we have an effective vaccine that has saved 30 million lives so far in the world.
So, what is the good news in England? The Field Epidemiology Service of Public Health England led a study of 6,644 young people aged 10 to 16 years that confirmed that that the percentage of them vaccinated with the MMR vaccine has reached 95 per cent. This follows concerns about the discredited link between the MMR vaccine and autism in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At the time, measles had been virtually eliminated in the UK but due to the unfortunate publicity about this unsubstantiated link, vaccination rates fell nationally to less than 85 per cent in 2005. After a few years of low vaccination rates, measles returned.
In England, in 2011 and 2012, we saw a large increase in the number of cases and outbreaks of measles. In 2012, we confirmed nearly 2,000 cases, the highest number since 1994 and in the first few months of 2013 the number of cases continued to increase. Almost one in five cases needed hospital admission and 15 people experienced complications such as chest infection or meningitis. As a result, a catch up campaign was launched in April 2013 to offer vaccination to children now aged 10-16 who had missed out during the scare.
The campaign was a concerted effort by Public Health England, the Department of Health and NHS England to offer the vaccine to children who had not been vaccinated previously through their GP with the aim of ensuring that at least 95 per cent of children aged 10-16 years had received at least one dose of the vaccine. Our study demonstrates that we have reached this objective and the most recent surveillance data is much more encouraging with 8 cases confirmed with measles in November and December 2013.
Does this mean that measles is under control now? Not completely, despite this positive news we can’t be complacent. Our study also showed that there is variation in vaccination rates at local levels and there are some particular groups where insufficient numbers of people are vaccinated and therefore they still risk having outbreaks of measles. There is still more work to do to make sure that measles is truly a thing of the past, but we have made excellent progress towards this and in the catch up campaigns.