London faces major measles outbreak, warns UK Health Security Agency

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The UK’s capital has been warned it faces a major measles outbreak that could result in thousands of people being hospitalised and dozens of deaths because of low vaccination rates.

Analysis by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said London risks an outbreak of between 40,000 and 160,000 cases of measles without an improvement in vaccination rates. Data shows that some fewer than 70% of some groups of children in London have had the first dose of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. UKHSA say two doses are required for adequate protection which needs to be administered to 95% of the population for the vaccine to be effective.

“Measles can be a serious infection that can lead to complications especially in young children and those with weakened immune systems,” said Dr Vanessa Saliba, a consultant epidemiologist at UKHSA. “Due to longstanding suboptimal vaccine uptake there is now a very real risk of seeing big outbreaks in London.”

Smaller outbreaks are possible outside the capital among specific groups of people, including teenagers, who have not been vaccinated.

Official figures published today (June 14) indicates a resurgence of the disease with 128 cases reported in the first six months of this year, compared to 54 measles case in 2022. Cases have been recorded across the country but 66% have been detected in the capital.

In its statement, UKSA said: “The risk in London is primarily due to low vaccination rates over several years, further impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in some areas and groups where coverage of the first MMR dose at two years of age is as low as 69.5%.”

Measles is a highly contagious and serious airborne disease that can cause severe complications and death. UKHSA estimate that between 20% and 40% of children who contract the illness are hospitalised. Symptoms include a cough, red eyes and facial rash but complications cans be triggered in vulnerable people, especially younger children and people aged over 30. Measles can lead to blindness, pneumonia, encepahalitis and meningitis.

Globally, vaccination has “averted 56 million deaths” between 2000 and 2021, states the World Health Organization (WHO) which estimates there were 128,000 measles around the world in 2021, “mostly among unvaccinated or under vaccinated children under the age of 5 years.”

The measles vaccine was introduced in 1963 and is available free to everyone. The UKHSA are urging unvaccinated people to get the jab and parents are encouraged to ensure their children are fully vaccinated before travelling overseas for their summer holidays.

“Nobody wants to see their child or loved ones sick with measles, or put others who are more vulnerable, like babies, at risk.

“I urge those who have missed their MMR vaccines to catch up now,” said the UKHSA’s Dr Saliba.

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