Parents were urged not to delay vaccinating their children against measles last night after infections soared to an 18-year high.
There were 2,016 confirmed cases of the disease in 2012, twice the number in the previous year and the highest total since 1994, the Health Protection Agency said. Although the illness is mild in most cases it can cause serious complications, including meningitis, brain damage and death. Almost 70 per cent of cases were in children under 18 and the majority were under five.
Vaccination against MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) fell in the late 90s and early 2000s following the scare about its supposed link with autism. The link was never proved and the research on which it was based has been discredited but the vaccination rate has been slow to recover.
Last year’s record total was driven by two prolonged outbreaks in the North-west and South-east. In the first half of the year the disease spread through pre-school children in Cheshire and Mersey-side, followed by clusters in schools and nurseries across the North-west.
In Sussex, the outbreak started in 2011 in the Steiner community, which rejects vaccination, and continued amongst unvaccinated children in 2012. Smaller outbreaks have occurred among travelling communities.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the HPA, said : “MMR coverage is now at historically high levels but measles is highly infectious and can spread easily among poorly-vaccinated communities, and can affect anyone susceptible, including toddlers, in whom vaccination has been delayed.”
Dr Ramsay said older children who were not vaccinated during the scare a decade ago and were now approaching their teens were at particular risk of becoming exposed while at school. “They are the ones we need to find,” she said.
MMR vaccine is given in two shots – the first between 12 and 15 months and the second around age four, before the child starts school. Latest figures show 89 per cent of children had received both shots by age five, when they started school.