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Parents are being urged to have their children fully immunised with the combined vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) before school starts this month, after warnings that cases of measles are rising.
The latest figures from the Health Protection Agency show 480 confirmed cases of measles in the United Kingdom so far this year, compared with a provisional total of 756 cases for the whole of last year, which was the highest number recorded for at least 20 years.
Most of the cases reported this year have been in England, with 10 in Wales and five in Scotland. No cases have been reported in Northern Ireland.
In England, London had the largest number of cases, with 155; followed by the east of England, with 134; the south east, with 69; and Yorkshire and Humberside, with 49. The east Midlands had 30 cases; and the north west 14. Just one case has been reported in the north east.
The figures also show that the number of cases this year has increased considerably during the summer. At the end of the first week of June, 136 cases had been confirmed—a quarter of the current total.
“Over the summer holidays we have seen more cases of measles being reported than we would normally expect,” said Mary Ramsay, a consultant epidemiologist with the agency.
“This means it is crucial that children are fully immunised with two doses of MMR before they return to school. Measles is a highly infectious and dangerous illness, and as there is increased close contact in schools, it can spread easily,” she said.
“Now is the time parents will be buying their children a new school uniform to prepare for the school year ahead, but being prepared to avoid infection is even more important,” she added.
The agency says that the increase has occurred in communities where the uptake of the vaccine is lower—for example, among children living in travellers' sites. Cases are currently occurring in unvaccinated children of school age, and there have been small outbreaks in primary schools.
In the first three months of this year, uptake of the MMR vaccine was at 88% for the first dose but dropped to 74% for the second. The agency points out that after the first dose, 5-10% of children are not fully protected against measles.
“Public confidence in the MMR vaccine continues to remain high as the uptake for those receiving their first dose has stayed stable. However, it is also important to remember that children should complete their full course of MMR vaccine,” said Dr Ramsay.