Measles outbreak in UK could get 'much worse', health chief warns

Muslim communities in West Midlands being advised of a non-porcine vaccine alternative to the standard MMR jab

(FILES) In this file photo taken on April 20, 2013 14-month-old Amelia Down sits on the lap of her mother Helen (L) as she receives the combined Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination at an MMR drop-in clinic at Neath Port Talbot Hospital near Swansea in south Wales on April 20, 2013.  Measles cases are skyrocketing in Europe and the disease is surging in four countries previously considered to have eliminated it, including Britain, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on August 29, 2019, urging countries to step up vaccination efforts. / AFP / GEOFF CADDICK
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A measles outbreak in Britain could get substantially worse unless more is done to increase vaccine uptake nationally, the head of the UK Health Security Agency has warned.

Professor Dame Jenny Harries said “concerted action” is needed to tackle the highly contagious virus and the UK was on a “trajectory for everything getting much worse”.

Muslim communities in the West Midlands, one of the worst affected areas, are being advised there are alternatives available to the MMR pork derivative-based jab in a bid to help raise vaccine rates.

Figures released by the health security agency (UKHSA) show there have been 216 confirmed measles cases and 103 probable cases since October 1 last year in the West Midlands, where vaccine rates are down to 81 per cent.

In the Surrey Heartlands Integrated Care Board area, they are at just over 70 per cent.

Official figures show uptake of the vaccine is at its lowest point in over a decade.

In 2022-23, some 84.5 per cent of youngsters in England had received both doses of the jab by the time they were five years old. About 92.5 per cent had received one dose.

Around 80 per cent of measles cases have been found in Birmingham while 10 per cent were identified in Coventry, with most being in children aged under 10.

Asked which communities are most affected, Dame Jenny said: “This is an important point, I think for the West Midlands, for those in Muslim communities, they will be not keen to take up one of the MMR vaccines that we offer which has a pork-based derivative.

“But it's really important that they're aware there is a non-porcine vaccine which is available to them and very effective.

“So it's that sort of understanding and ensuring that knowledge is available to people so they can make choices.”

The UKHSA has declared a national incident in response to the rising cases, a move it said is an internal mechanism signalling the growing public health risk and enabling it to focus work in specific areas.

Dame Jenny said: “We need to build up vaccination coverage so each new age group coming through systematically attains that 95 per cent coverage and that will protect all of us, both those who have had the vaccine and the very few who are perhaps immunocompromised for whatever reason, or perhaps very small children under six months who cannot have the vaccine.

She added: “This is a call right across the country for all parents to check the vaccination rates of their children and also, one of our most unvaccinated populations are young adults (born around 1998 to 2004) … and many of those now, of course, will be in frontline work, so things like young teachers, and it's really important that they also get vaccinated with MMR.”

She said the virus can result in serious complications but she is “not generally in favour” of making the vaccinations mandatory for children before they reach school age.

She said: “We have a number of different vaccine programmes that are highly effective and the MMR vaccine is 99 per cent effective against clinical disease.

“This is a really well tried, well trusted and highly effective vaccine, but we have never had, in our routine childhood population programmes, a mandatory programme.

“For me personally, it is really important that families trust the information because we will have new vaccines coming on board and it is important they can see individuals in their own communities coming forward, that we have trials and studies of vaccines which are representing the population that they recognise for themselves.

“I'm not generally in favour of (mandatory vaccines for children), it is not something we have generally in the UK, but nevertheless, for healthcare professionals particularly, we have a responsibility and a duty to protect our patients, so certainly for me, I would always go forward for vaccination.”

Updated: January 20, 2024, 12:34 PM