Unprecedented rise in measles cases

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The number of measles cases continues to rise, figures showed today.

Data from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) showed there were 1,217 cases from January to November 2008 in England and Wales.

The latest figures take into account data for November, when 115 cases were reported.

In October, 72 cases were reported and the figure for September was 83.

Year-on-year, the number of people suffering measles is on the rise, with 990 cases reported in the whole of 2007.

Dr Mary Ramsay, an HPA immunisation expert, said: "We are still experiencing an unprecedented increase in measles cases across England and Wales."

Three-quarters (74 per cent) of the 115 cases diagnosed in November last year were outside the traditional hotspot of London and were reported in the West Midlands, North West and South East.

Most of these cases are linked with outbreaks in nurseries, primary and secondary schools and there have been outbreaks in traveller communities in the West Midlands and South East.

More than six in 10 (65 per cent) of all cases in England and Wales were in children under the age of 15.

The rise in measles cases has been blamed on a slump in the uptake of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) jab after fears about its safety.

Dr Ramsay said: "This continued rise is due to relatively low MMR vaccine uptake over the past decade and there are now a large number of children who are not fully protected with MMR.

"This means that measles, which is highly infectious, is spreading easily among these unvaccinated children.

"The Agency is concerned that we may see measles epidemics take hold. We again are urging parents to get their children vaccinated.

"Although MMR coverage is starting to improve, we cannot stress enough that measles is serious and in some cases it can be fatal. Delaying immunisation puts children at risk.

"We are glad to see that public confidence in the MMR vaccine is now high with more than 8 out of 10 children receiving one dose of MMR by their second birthday.

"But we shouldn't forget that the children who weren't vaccinated many years ago are at real risk.

"Measles is a very serious infection as it can lead to pneumonia and encephalitis, even in healthy children.

"It is highly infectious and can be passed on without direct contact before the rash appears."

Earlier this week, researchers said that hopes of banishing measles from Europe by 2010 may have been dashed by poor vaccination rates in a handful of countries including Britain.

Their study documented more than 12,000 cases of European measles in the two years spanning 2006 and 2007.

All but 15 per cent occurred in just five countries - the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Romania - and most were infections of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated children.

In August last year the Department of Health launched a campaign to improve MMR take-up rates in England and made available extra supplies of the vaccine.

The new research reported in The Lancet medical journal takes a long hard look at the World Health Organisation's stated goal of eliminating measles from Europe by 2010.

It concluded that if the situation does not change, achieving this target will not be possible.