Biggest measles outbreak 'for 20 years'Low uptake of the MMR injection blamed

15 June 2006

England is in the grip of the biggest measles outbreak for 20 years, health experts said last night.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) said there have been 100 confirmed cases in Surrey and Sussex with 50 more unconfirmed in the past six months. In Yorkshire there may be up to 80 cases. Last year there were just 77 cases across England and Wales.

Measles can cause breathing difficulties, diarrhoea, ear, lung and eye infections and, in more serious cases, swelling of the brain.

MMR fears

The surge has been blamed on the government's failure to maintain public confidence in the controversial measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) jab after a research paper raised fears that the MMR could bring on autism or bowel problems in children who'd had the vaccine.

An HPA spokesperson said: 'We haven't had an outbreak as big as this in this country since the MMR jab was introduced in 1988. If you look at the Surrey figures alone, that is bigger than anything we've had previously.

'We are not surprised to see the outbreak because this is a population with a lot of people now susceptible to the disease due to a low uptake of the MMR injection, and measles is highly contagious.'

Risk of worse outbreak

The HPA is urging parents to ensure their child has the first injection at one year old and the second booster within 18 months, since one in ten don't respond to the first. It says that, without fast action, there could be an outbreak on the scale of an incident in Dublin in 2000, when two children died and hundreds were hospitalised.

The news of the outbreak comes just days after the General Medical Council said that Dr Andrew Wakefield, the controversial doctor who in 1998 suggested the link between the MMR vaccine and autism, could face a charge of serious professional misconduct.

In 2003, experts on our sister publication, Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin (DTB), reviewed available research and cleared the vaccine. DTB studies research that had caused concern and concluded that the MMR was the most effective and safest way of protecting children from measles, mumps and rubella.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley blamed the government for the outbreak, saying its failure to maintain public confidence in the MMR jab 'directly' led to the outbreak.