Upsurge of measles cases in Wales|
CARDIFF, Wales: Parents were told on August 30 to ensure their children get the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) jab after a sharp rise in the number of measles cases over the summer holidays.
National Public Health Service Wales said the number of confirmed cases was higher than expected for the time of year, and urged families to ensure children were vaccinated against the disease, which can be fatal.
It said parents should put getting the children vaccinated on their back-to-school “to do” list, alongside buying new uniforms, books and stationery.
Experts fear that infected children returning to school next week may cause measles, which is highly infectious, to spread.
There have been 10 reported cases in Wales already this year, compared to just four in the whole of 2006. Three children were affected by an outbreak in Malpas, Newport, last month.
Last year saw the highest number of measles cases in the UK since the current monitoring system was introduced in 1995 and there are fears this year’s final tally will be even higher.
Health officials blame a decline in the take-up of the MMR vaccine since 1998, when Dr Andrew Wakefield published his controversial claim that MMR was linked to autism and bowel disease. The government has consistently denied any link.
Babies are given the first dose of the MMR jab when they are around 13 months old and the second jab between the ages of three years-four months and five. The programme is thought to be 99 per cent successful if children are given both doses.
The government has set a target for 95 per cent of children to be given the MMR vaccine. The Welsh take-up rate is currently lower, around 88 per cent, although it has risen in the past two years.
Across the UK, there have been 480 confirmed cases of measles, two-thirds of which have been reported in the past 11 weeks. In 2006, there were 756 in the whole year.
The disease, which can be life-threatening and cause severe disabilities, is most common among children aged between one and four who have not been immunised, but it can strike older children and adults too.
Symptoms of measles include a high temperature, cough, runny nose, and red and watery eyes, with a rash of spots appearing over the following days.
Dr Brendan Mason, a consultant epidemiologist at the NPHS Wales, said: “Over the summer holidays, we have seen more cases of measles being reported than we would normally expect. This means it is crucial that children are fully immunised with two doses of MMR before they return to school. Measles is a highly infectious and dangerous illness and, as there is increased close contact in schools, it can spread easily.
“Now is the time parents will be buying their children a new school uniform to prepare for the school year ahead, but being prepared to avoid infection is even more important. Parents should think about adding the MMR vaccine to their back-to-school ‘to do’ list.”
Parallel advice has been issued by public health agencies in England and Scotland. There have been no reported cases in Northern Ireland this year.
The agencies say that the 95 per cent is critical as it created “herd immunity," meaning that even if there is an outbreak of the disease it can easily be contained by this high level of immunisation.
Dr Mason added: “It is also important to remember that children should complete their full course of MMR vaccine. It is also important to remember it is never too late to get vaccinated.”
Dr David Bailey, a GP in Caerphilly who chairs BMA Wales’ GP committee, said: “The bottom line is that firstly, we support the MMR vaccine, and secondly, measles is a disease that kills children. We used to lose 20-odd children in the UK every year to measles, and that figure is now zero due to the effective vaccination. It’s an important message, and we support what the protection agencies are saying.”
Although cases of measles in Wales were still rare, he said take-up of MMR was still lower than for other routine mass vaccinations such as TB or tetanus, despite little evidence that it was unsafe.
“All the big population trials suggest it is completely safe,” he said.
The Health Protection Agency said a large number of cases had been noted in communities where vaccine uptake is lower, including travelling families.
But cases were also currently occurring in unvaccinated school-age children across all social groups.
Over the course of the year, there have also been small outbreaks in primary schools and in people returning from other countries.
Dr Wakefield is currently appearing before the General Medical Council (GMC) in London facing charges relating to his research on the MMR jab, which was first used in the UK in 1988 to replace single vaccines for each of the illnesses.
As head of the research team, Dr Wakefield said he believed the combination of three virus strains for measles, mumps and rubella might overload the body’s immune system.
(Source: Western Mail, August 31, 2007)