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Measles outbreak could spread warns UKHSA Chief Executive

Posted on January 31st, 2024


MmrFurther outbreaks of measles will spread to other towns and cities unless urgent action is taken to increase Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination uptake in areas at greatest risk, the UK Health Security Agency’s (UKHSA) Chief Executive is warning today during a visit to Birmingham, amid a rapid rise in cases in parts of the region since last October.

Professor Dame Jenny Harries is in Birmingham today (19 January) to see first-hand the extensive clinical, health protection, epidemiological and community engagement work on-going to contain the spread of the disease and encourage communities to urgently take up the offer of an MMR vaccine.

As of 18 January, there have been 216 confirmed cases and 103 probable cases in the West Midlands since 1 October 2023. Around 80% of cases have been seen in Birmingham, with about 10% in Coventry, the majority being in children aged under 10 years.

Following a UKHSA risk assessment published last July, which warned of the potential for such outbreaks, Dame Jenny has expressed concern that unless urgent action is taken we are likely to see the measles virus spreading rapidly in other areas with low MMR vaccine uptake.

While in Birmingham, Dame Jenny will be visiting the Birmingham Heartlands Hospital and meeting with health professionals coordinating the response, including local UKHSA epidemiologists and consultants, NHS leaders and local councils across the West Midlands.

Learning what has worked and not worked in the West Midlands will be key to help other areas prepare. There have been some recent successful interventions focused to support local communities, such as a pop-up vaccination clinic at a school in Coventry, street level community engagement to promote vaccination and training and awareness raising of frontline professionals in schools and healthcare settings. But Dame Jenny is calling on all local areas to make a sustained commitment to turn around the falling MMR uptake rates in communities across the country.

The UKHSA has declared a national incident. This is an internal mechanism within the Agency signalling the growing public health risk and to enable the Agency to focus on limiting further spread of the outbreak including additional work to help protect other areas at greatest risk.

Professor Dame Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of UKHSA, said:

Colleagues across the West Midlands have worked tirelessly to try to control the outbreak, but with vaccine uptake in some communities so low, there is now a very real risk of seeing the virus spread in other towns and cities.

Children who get measles can be very poorly and some will suffer life changing complications. The best way for parents to protect their children from measles is the MMR vaccine. Two doses of the MMR vaccine give lifelong protection and it’s never too late to catch up.

Immediate action is needed to boost MMR uptake across communities where vaccine uptake is low. We know from the pandemic that the communities themselves, and those providing services within them, will have the knowledge to best support local families to understand the risks of measles, to learn more about the vaccines that can protect them and to enable innovative vaccine delivery approaches. We need a long-term concerted effort to protect individuals and to prevent large measles outbreaks.

In December, Dame Jenny welcomed the new NHS England Vaccination Strategy, with its renewed focus on innovative delivery approaches, recognising that the link between uptake rates and vaccine confidence and accessibility is critical. Responding to the Strategy she highlighted that UKHSA has committed to supporting national vaccination programmes, including MMR, as one of the Agency’s top priorities. Working alongside the NHS, UKHSA continues to evaluate uptake coverage and effectiveness of immunisation programmes in order to inform NHS routine vaccination programmes in the future.

MMR is part of the NHS Routine Childhood Immunisation Programme – with one dose offered at one year and another second dose at 3 years 4 months. Parents whose infants missed out, or anyone of any age who has not yet had a vaccine, are urged to come forward. The free MMR vaccine is a safe and effective way of protecting against measles, as well as mumps and rubella.

Measles spreads very easily among those who are unvaccinated, especially in nurseries and schools. It can be a very unpleasant illness and in some children can be very serious, leading to hospitalisation and tragically even death in rare cases. People in certain at-risk groups including babies and young children, pregnant women, and people with weakened immunity, are at increased risk of complications from measles.

Over 99% of those who have 2 doses of the MMR vaccine will be protected against measles and rubella. The vaccine also provides protection against mumps, which can be very painful with complications including inflammation of the ovaries and testicles, and in rare cases, the pancreas. Although mumps protection is slightly lower, cases in vaccinated people are much less severe, highlighting the importance of the MMR vaccination.

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