Measles is soaring in Britain, putting two million unvaccinated children at risk, public health experts warn.
Cases are running at almost twice last year's record levels. Although the illness is mild in most cases, it can cause serious complications including meningitis, brain damage and death.
The Government is launching a new drive today to increase uptake of the MMR vaccine, which fell following the scare about its supposed link with autism. The link was never proved and the research on which it was based has since been discredited.
The Department of Health said more than two million children were at risk of measles because they had missed either their first or second MMR vaccination. The first is given between 12 and 15 months and the second around age four, before the child starts school.
There were 865 cases of measles in the first five months of the year (January to May), almost twice the 451 in the same period last year, which was itself a record. About 80 per cent of cases occurred in unvaccinated children. Last year's total of 1,370 cases in England, the highest since 1995, looks certain to be exceeded.
Scientists have warned that the rise in cases puts Britain at greater threat of a measles epidemic, with more than 100,000 people infected, than at any time in a generation.
Professor David Salisbury, director of immunisation at the Department of Health said: "The number of cases of measles is on the increase and we need to warn all parents about the potential dangers of this infection. They need to be aware that if their child is not immunised and comes into contact with a child infected with measles, there is around a 90 per cent chance they will catch measles."
About one in 15 children who catch measles will develop more serious complications like deafness, meningitis or brain damage. One in 5,000 who contracts measles dies. The year before the MMR vaccine was introduced, 86,000 children caught measles and 16 died. Because it spreads so easily, 95 per cent of the population needs to be vaccinated to prevent outbreaks.
There have been two deaths from measles in recent years – in 2006 and 2008 – after more than a decade of none. Fifty years ago the illness killed 500 children a year in the UK, but vaccination almost eliminated the disease.
From today, a roadshow will visit 12 measles hotspots across the country where vaccination rates are low, to raise awareness. Liverpool, Warrington, Manchester, Brighton and Guildford are already experiencing measles outbreaks, the Department of Health said. Other at-risk areas being targeted include Leeds, Rotherham, Nottingham, Norwich, Ipswich, Reading and Slough.
Vaccination rates vary widely around the country, but are lowest in London, where in some areas they have dropped below 30 per cent. Last year, ministers launched a "catch-up" campaign aimed at parents who had not vaccinated their children. More than one million doses of vaccine were stockpiled and primary care trusts ordered to identify unvaccinated children and encourage their parents to bring them in for injections.
The Health Protection Agency said cases had risen every month this year, and the 263 cases recorded in May was the largest monthly figure since the current recording method was introduced in 1995. Cases were reported from all regions except Yorkshire and the Humber, with new outbreaks confirmed in the North-east and Wales.