Half a million children missed measles vaccine, but what are the signs, symptoms and potential complications?

Children in the UK are skipping their MMR vaccinations [Photo: Getty]
Children in the UK are skipping their MMR vaccinations [Photo: Getty]

More than half a million children in the UK are at risk of contracting the potentially deadly measles virus because they skipped their recommended vaccinations in the last eight years, new figures have revealed.

Analysis by the children’s charity Unicef found that the UK is among the worst high-income countries for uptake of the jab, with a total of 527,000 put at risk of infection over the past eight years.

The new data, which charts children left unvaccinated between 2010 and 2017, follows a steep rise in measles cases in England last year.

The figures reveal that vaccination coverage among children reaching their second birthday in England is now 91 per cent, with just 87 per cent receiving the second dose by their fifth birthday.

This falls below the 95 per cent coverage experts believe is necessary to achieve “herd-immunity”, where outbreaks are effectively unable to spread.

The charity claims that the rise in measles cases and the reduced uptake of the measles jab could be attributed to “complacency, fear or scepticism” about vaccine safety.

Following the publication of research linking the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) jab to autism by the British doctor Andrew Wakefield in 1998, there was a drop in the jab uptake, but more recently the anti-vax movement has been gathering steam on social media.

READ MORE: Mum shares pictures of baby with measles, urges parents to vaccinate

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens described the vaccination drop as a “growing public health time-bomb” calling out those who spread “myths” about vaccines on social media.

“With measles cases almost quadrupled in England in just one year, it is grossly irresponsible for anybody to spread scare stories about vaccines, and social media firms should have a zero tolerance approach towards this dangerous content,” he said.

But why is it so important that children are vaccinated against measles?

What is measles?

According to the NHS measles is a highly infectious viral illness that can be very unpleasant and sometimes lead to serious complications.

“Measles is a highly communicable infectious illnesses caused by an RNA paramyxovirus and it can sometimes lead to serious complications,” adds Dr Sonal Shah, NHS GP and Lifestyle medicine expert.

Though anyone can get measles if they haven’t been vaccinated or haven’t had it before, it is most common in young children.

What are the symptoms of it?

The NHS says initial symptoms of measles develop around 10 days after being infected and can include:

  • cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing and a cough

  • sore, red eyes that may be sensitive to light

  • a high temperature (fever), which may reach around 40C (104F)

  • small greyish-white spots on the inside of the cheeks

“A few days later, a red-brown blotchy rash will appear. This usually starts on the head or upper neck before spreading outwards to the rest of the body,” the site explains.

Dr Shah explains that flu like symptoms will often appear before the onset of the rash and include fever, runny nose, red eyes, cough and generally feeling unwell.

Those that are infected develop a characteristic red rash that starts on the face and spreads affecting the trunk and limbs over 3 to 4 days. There are also white spots that appear inside the mouth known as koplik spots,” she explains.

“One of the difficulties with diagnosis it is that it mimics many other childhood infections such as parvovirus or rubella,” Dr Shah adds.

READ MORE: Italy bans unvaccinated children from attending school

How is measles treated?

“In those people who are generally well, this is a self limiting illness and only requires supportive treatment such as rest, fluids and analgesia,” says Dr Shah. “However those who are pregnant, immunocompromised or have an underlying serious health condition, made need additional treatment.”

If you or your child contracts measles there are a few things you can do to help relieve the symptoms of the virus.

The NHS suggests taking paracetamol to relieve the fever and aches and pains although the site notes that aspirin should not be given to children under 16).

Other advice includes drinking water to avoid dehydration, keeping rooms as dark as possible to help reduce light sensitivity and using damp cotton wool to clean eyes.

How common is it?

In 2017 there were 259 measles cases in England, which rose to 966 in 2018.

Meanwhile in the first three months of 2019, more than 110,000 measles cases were reported worldwide, up almost 300 per cent on the same period the year before.

An estimated 110,000 people, most of them children, died from measles in 2017 globally, a 22 per cent rise on the previous year.

READ MORE: Your child’s vaccination schedule

Measles usually clears in 7-10 days but in some cases people can experience complications [Photo: Getty]
Measles usually clears in 7-10 days but in some cases people can experience complications [Photo: Getty]

How is measles spread?

Like many viruses, the measles virus is found in the tiny droplets that come out of the nose and mouth. It is easy to catch the virus when an infected person coughs or sneezes and you breathe in the droplets.

But you can also be infected by touching a surface the droplets have landed on, then placing your hands near your nose or mouth.

According to the NHS people who have measles are infectious from when the symptoms first develop until about 4 days after the rash first appears.

Complications of measles

In most cases measles should clear within 7-10 days but in some cases complications can occur. Those particularly at risk of complications include babies younger than 1 year old, children with a poor diet, children with a weakened immune system (such as those with leukaemia), teenagers and adults

The NHS lists some of the most common complications as being diarrhoea and vomiting, middle ear and eye infections and fits.

In some cases measles can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening conditions infections of the lungs (pneumonia) and brain (encephalitis).

“Serious complications from measles include otitis media, pneumonitis, encephalitis, and secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia,” explains Dr Shah.

“There is also a rare late complication called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, which leads to neurological damage and death within 1-3 years,” adds Dr Clare Morrison of Medexpress.

Why it is so important that children are vaccinated?

All children are offered the MMR vaccination as part of the NHS childhood immunisation programme.

“Immunisation allows the body to develop antibodies which can help protect against the illness and therefore prevent serious complications,” explains Dr Shah.

“It is also important for something called herd immunity, the idea that if most children are vaccinated this will protect even those who are not and to limit the spread of the infection.”

That’s something echoed by Dr Morrison.

“If children aren’t vaccinated there is a great risk to them of catching the infection,” she explains. “At best this will make them extremely miserable for a week or more. It could also cause serious complications and permanent harm, including epilepsy, brain damage and even death.”

But as Dr Morrison points out the risk isn’t confined to these children. “When infected, they can pass the virus on the young babies who are too young to be vaccinated,” she continues.

“We are very fortunate to have the measles vaccine so freely available in the UK, and I would strongly recommend that all children have it.”

For more information, visit the NHS website here.