Measles outbreak in the UK declared a national incident

Following the recent measles outbreak in the West Midlands, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has declared a national incident

The resurgence of the viral disease coincides with a broader international trend. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced a more than 30-fold increase in measles cases across Europe in 2023. 

Measles is a highly contagious infection that spreads easily without vaccination. The infection can prove deadly to babies and young children. According to the WHO, a decline in the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine coverage has contributed to the greater incidence of the infection.

UKHSA authorities have noted the UK’s MMR vaccination rate has fallen below the WHO’s recommended full vaccination rate of 95%. The outbreak in the West Midlands has raised concern for further infection and spread across the country. According to NHS England, more than 3.4 million children under the age of 16 are unprotected from the disease. 

The MMR vaccine is included in the NHS Routine Childhood Immunisation Programme, meaning it is offered to all children in the UK. Children are meant to receive their first dose at the age of one, and the second at three years and four months. Through receiving both doses, children are provided with lifelong coverage against measles, mumps, and rubella. 

The uptick in measles cases comes as a blow to public health in the UK, which had previously been classified as a country that eliminated measles entirely in 2017. At the moment, only about 85% of children starting primary school in the UK have been fully vaccinated against the acute viral illness. 

With the backsliding in vaccine coverage, schools and nurseries have become dangerous environments for infection. By declaring a national incident, the UKHSA is strategising its immunisation campaigns to ensure children are being fully vaccinated against the virus.

Local efforts to recover MMR vaccination rates are currently in process. The NHS launched a two-part vaccination campaign focused on MMR in November 2023. The goal is to encourage and facilitate catch-up jabs of MMR, especially among vulnerable groups. As part of the campaign, the NHS has contacted parents and guardians of children under five years old via text, email, and letter in an effort to encourage routine MMR vaccination. Other target groups living in London and the Midlands will also be contacted. 

According to the NHS, measles will stop spreading if at least 95% of children have both doses of the MMR vaccine. The risk of spread greatly increases if the vaccination rate falls below 90%. Medical experts emphasise the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, since after both doses, about 99% of people are protected against measles.

The UKHSA is alarmed by the general declining rate of childhood vaccinations. However, vaccine hesitancy in the UK is nothing new. For example, in the late 1990s, Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues published a study that fraudulently linked the MMR vaccine to autism, leading to a lasting period of low childhood vaccination rates. Public health initiatives have sought to restore public trust in vaccinations since then.

The current low vaccination rate among children can be attributed to various factors. Vaccine misinformation, low vaccine equity, and disruptions in health service provisions are just a few reasons for the downward trend.

The COVID-19 pandemic further impacted routine immunisations for children. On top of a spike in anti-vaccine sentiment, many individuals and families feared contracting an illness at clinics or felt access to health professionals was challenging. Some may have felt a lack of transparency regarding vaccine services or had difficulty scheduling and attending appointments. 

It is critical for young children to receive their routine childhood immunisations. There is growing concern that the measles virus may spread even further if the outbreak is not addressed and wider campaign efforts do not target areas with low vaccine uptake. 

As the NHS and UKHSA work together to help recoup vaccination rates, measles still presents a real risk for vulnerable groups. Individuals should take care to protect themselves and their loved ones from the potentially deadly virus.

Image description: Gloved hands filling a vaccine syringe from the vial.

Image credit: Mufid Majnun via unsplash