Measles is a highly infectious viral illness that can sometimes lead to serious complications but thankfully, is now relatively rare in the UK thanks to childhood vaccinations.
Last year (2018), 91.2% of eligible children in the UK had been given the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, according to recent NHS stats. That sounds high (and it is higher than some other European countries and than in some US states) but it’s the lowest MMR coverage stat since 2011/2.
The World Health Organization’s target for MMR vaccination is 95%. Only at this level of coverage can we protect those, like very small babies, who are not vaccinated.
And cases of measles do seem to be one the rise: reports from Public Health England between 1 January 2018 and 13 August 2018 have confirmed 828 cases of measles across the UK.
It’s thought that most of the cases so far have occurred in children and adults who haven’t received 2 doses of the MMR vaccine.
So, it’s important to ensure your child receives their immunisation jabs…
What are measles?
Measles is a respiratory infection caused by the rubeola virus that spreads easily through coughs and sneezes.
What are the symptoms of measles?
Signs usually develop 10 days after infection and can last for around 2 weeks. These might include:
- A high temperature or fever, which can reach 40.6C (105F).
- Symptoms similar to cold or flu, such as sneezing and a runny nose.
- Greyish white spots in the mouth and throat (known as Koplik’s spots).
- Sensitivity to light and / or red eyes.
- A rash of red-brown spots, which appears after a few days. It often starts behind the ears, but can spread across the body. Spots start small but can get bigger and join together.
How is measles diagnosed?
If you suspect your child may have measles, contact your GP straight away. They will normally be able to diagnose the illness based on his symptoms, but a simple saliva or blood test can confirm it.
Measles is a notifiable infection, meaning doctors must report cases to the local health authority to prevent wider outbreaks.
How is measles treated?
There is no set treatment for measles. All you can do is manage your child’s symptoms in the following ways:
- Keep your child hydrated by ensuring he drinks lots of water.
- Use infant paracetamol or ibuprofen as directed to relieve fever and pain.
- Wipe eyes clean with damp cotton wool (use a new piece for each eye).
- Reduce the light in the room if he is sensitive to it.
You should keep your child away from other children until the rash has been apparent for at least 5 days.
The good news is that if he catches measles, he will develop immunity to it, so won’t catch it again.
Measles complications – what are they?
Children under the age of 5, who have a poor diet or a weakened immune system, are more at risk of developing complications from measles.
More common ones include diarrhoea, vomiting, conjunctivitis and laryngitis. They may also suffer febrile convulsions due to the fever.
Less commonly, sufferers may develop meningitis, pneumonia or hepatitis, and in very rare cases, eye disorders and problems with the heart or nervous system.
The MMR vaccination for measles
The MMR jab for measles, mumps and rubella should be given to your child when they are 12 to 13 months old, as part of their first year vaccinations. They receive a further booster jab between 3 and 5 years old, before they start school.
These immunisations are very effective, with 99% of children fully protected after both.
Getting vaccinated is the only way to prevent the infection and concerns about a link with autism have proved to be unfounded.
If your child has been exposed to the virus before receiving the jab and is 6 months or older, your GP may suggest an earlier vaccination.
However, if he is less than 6 months old and you have had measles or were vaccinated, he is likely to be immune to the infection as antibodies will have been passed to him in the womb.
If this is not the case, an injection of human normal immunoglobulin (HNIG) can be given. This is a concentration of antibodies which will offer immediate protection but is not a vaccine.
Measles in pregnancy
Catching measles during pregnancy can be harmful both to you and your unborn baby, carrying a risk of miscarriage or low birth weight.
The MMR vaccination cannot be given during pregnancy, so ensure you’re vaccinated before you get pregnant.