Measles Warning

The Health Protection Agency in the South East is urging parents to ensure their children are fully protected with two doses of MMR vaccine as measles cases continue to increase across the country.

Families planning to travel abroad during the school holidays should check that they are up-to-date with their MMR vaccinations prior to departure. It has long been recommended that those travelling to countries with endemic measles or measles outbreaks should be fully immunised. It is important to note that currently there are outbreaks of measles ongoing in:

- Bulgaria

- France

- Germany

- Italy

Measles is an acute infection caused by the measles virus. You can catch measles at any age, but it is most common in children, teenagers and young adults who have not been immunised. Symptoms of measles include a runny nose, together with conjunctivitis (red eyes), a cough, fever and a rash.

Dr Graham Bickler, Regional Director of the Health Protection Agency South East, said: "We are still seeing cases of measles in many parts of the region and the only way we are going to eliminate these infections is by working with parents, schools, universities and other further education institutions to encourage MMR uptake.

"Measles should not be lightly dismissed as a childhood illness. Measles can be a nasty illness with potential for complications including meningitis and encephalitis. On rare occasions, measles can kill.

"It is not too late to be vaccinated and anyone who has not previously had two doses of MMR vaccine should arrange it now through their family doctor."

It is important to have two doses of measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination. MMR is routinely given in the UK at the age of 13 months and again at 3.5 years. Measles complications affect 1 in every 15 children and can include eye and ear infections, pneumonia, seizures and rarely encephalitis.

Measles Frequently Asked Questions

Who catches measles?

Measles is now rare in the UK because of the high levels of immunisation. Measles is usually a childhood infection and is most common in the 1-4 year old age group in children who have not been immunised. However, you can catch measles at any age.

How do you catch measles?

Measles is caught through direct contact with an infected person, or through the air when he or she coughs or sneezes.

How infectious measles?

About 90% of people who have not been immunised or had a past infection develop measles if they live in the same house as someone with measles. Measles is most infectious before the rash appears and only trivial contact may be sufficient for the virus to spread.

What is measles like?

Symptoms develop 9-11 days after becoming infected and last up to 14 days from the first signs to the end of the rash. The first stage of measles includes irritability, a runny nose, conjunctivitis (red eyes), a cough and an increasing fever that comes and goes. These symptoms may last up to 8 days. The rash starts from day 4 and the fever peaks at around 40.6C (105F). The rash usually starts on the forehead and spreads downwards over the face, neck and body. The rash consists of flat red or brown blotches which can flow into each other. It lasts 4-7 days. There can also be diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain.

How serious is measles?

One million children die from measles world-wide each year. In developing countries with poor vaccination programmes measles is a more severe disease. In the UK measles is rare. There were 4168 notified cases in 1997, but as few are confirmed many were probably rashes due to other viruses when the measles diagnosis was wrong. Even in the UK, complications are quite common. They include a severe cough and breathing difficulties (croup), ear infections, viral and bacterial lung infections (pneumonia), and eye infections (conjunctivitis). Most are caused by secondary bacterial infections which can be treated with antibiotics. The most serious problems involve the nervous system. Inflammation of the brain (acute encephalitis) occurs 2-6 days after the rash has appeared. Less than 1 in 1000 measles cases is affected in this way, but 25% of those are left with brain damage. SSPE (subacute sclerosing pan-encephalomyelitis) is the most severe complication of measles. It usually occurs years after the initial illness and is a slowly progressive brain infection. SSPE starts with intellectual impairment and deteriorates to seizures and eventually death. It is, however, very rare occuring in less than 1 in 100000 cases of measles.

Can you prevent measles?

Measles can be prevented by a highly effective vaccine. This is part of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) immunisation with a first dose at 12-15 months and a second dose at 3-4 years. Pregnant women or those with weakened immune systems should not be immunised. Past infection gives immunity. Immunisation programmes are essential prevent measles cases in the UK. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set a goal of the global eradication of measles by 2005-2010. This needs over 95% of all people to be immunised.

Number of confirmed measles cases

  2009 2010 2011*
Hampshire & Isle Of Wight 1 7 3
Kent 107 7 19
Surrey & Sussex 136 46 20
Thames Valley 25 27 8
Total South East 169 87 42


*to end of March (as of 06/04/2011)