Around 1 million children and teenagers will be targeted in a national MMR catch-up vaccination campaign aimed to stop the increase in measles cases in England.
Those aged 10 to 16 who are currently unvaccinated will be made a “first priority” as they missed out on being protected during the late 1990s following the now-discredited claims of Dr Andrew Wakefield that there was a link between autism and the MMR vaccine.
New figures from Public Health England (PHE) have revealed there were 587 confirmed measles cases in the first three months of this year in England, with the highest regional total found in the north west at 179, followed by 175 in the north east.
The figures, if unchecked, put England on course for another record annual high in measles cases after 1,920 confirmed cases last year.
Dr Mary Ramsay, Public Health England (PHE) head of immunisation, said there was particular concern about the potential for measles outbreaks in London and in the south and east of England, where MMR vaccination rates have not been historically as high as other areas in the north of the country.
Our concern is that we have a potential for school outbreaks in many areas of the country. Dr Mary Ramsay, PHE
She said: “We have this legacy of older children who were not vaccinated as toddlers, and these young people are now secondary school age. So they are now at the position where they can spread infection very effectively.
“Our concern is that we have a potential for school outbreaks in many areas of the country – probably the areas most likely to be affected would be London and the south and east of the country, where we know that the historical coverage was not as high as it was in the northern parts of the country.”
Out of the total number of confirmed cases in England this year, nearly one in five (108 cases) were admitted to hospital, with 15 of these experiencing complications such as pneumonia, meningitis and gastroenteritis.
GP surgeries, schools and community programmes will be used to vaccinate those who have not had either one or two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine in a £20m campaign.
Children are usually offered an MMR vaccine at 12 to 13 months, giving them roughly 95 per cent protection and then a second dose at around three-and-a-half-years-old which boosts this protection to 99 per cent.
In London the vaccination rate for the combined vaccine by the age of five between 2004-2005, was 57 per cent, one of the lowest rates in the UK, with south east London even lower at 47 per cent. The boroughs of Greenwich, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark were all found to have the worse vaccination uptake, below 50 per cent.
Experts believe the rise in measles cases can be mostly attributed to the proportion of unprotected 10-16 year olds who were infants during the Wakefield scare.
These latest PHE figures for England follow a measles outbreak in the south west Wales region where the total number of people who have contracted the disease now stands at 886.
Professor David Salisbury, director of immunisation at the Department of Health, said measles spreads like “wildfire”.
He added: “The situation in Swansea, I believe, is a wake-up call for parents – for parents who for whatever reason, quite a few years ago chose not to vaccinate their children and for whom these days vaccines aren’t really things that they think about very much.
What happened, and is continuing to happen, in Swansea can happen anywhere in England. Prof David Salisbury, Department of Health
“But what happened and is continuing to happen in Swansea can happen anywhere in England. Whilst this may sound slightly odd, you can of course catch measles but you can’t catch up with measles – what I mean is that chasing measles is a forlorn exercise.
“You have to prevent measles and that means we need to get ahead before we have got large numbers of cases and large outbreaks occurring in England.”
Measles, described as one of the most infectious diseases known to man, can lead to serious complications, including blindness and even death. The virus is contained in the millions of tiny droplets that come out of the nose and mouth when an infected person coughs or sneezes.