Measles is a highly infectious viral illness that can sometimes lead to serious complications. It used to be a very common childhood illness but, thanks to vaccinations, had become pretty rare in the UK.


However, a recent surge in measles cases, starting in the West Midlands and London and now spreading in clusters across the whole country, has led the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the body that is responsible for protecting us all from infectious diseases, to declare a 'national incident'.

There were 166 confirmed measles cases in January 2024, according to UKHSA figures, with cases of measles in the West Midlands are, according to the UKHSA, currently at their highest since the 1990s.

Since October, there have been 133 cases of measles in the West Midlands – the highest number since the MMR jab was first rolled out in the early 1990s
UK Health Security Agency

The UKHSA is now asking all parents to check that their child's MMR vaccinations (which protect against measles, as well as mumps and rubella) are up to date.

That's because, in recent years, uptake of the MMR vaccine has been falling. Latest stats suggest it's now between 89% and 85% in England – well below the 95% threshold set by the World Health Organisation to ensure that measles outbreaks don't happen. In some areas of London, data shows, 2 in 5 children are not protected.

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We are calling on all parents and guardians to make sure their children are up to date with their 2 MMR doses. It’s never too late to catch up, and you can get the MMR vaccine for free on the NHS whatever your child's age.
Dr Vanessa Saliba, Consultant Epidemiologist at UKHSA

"Measles spreads very easily," adds Dr Saliba, "and can lead to complications that require a stay in hospital. On rare occasions, it can cause lifelong disability or death. So it is very concerning to see cases starting to pick up this year. Vaccines are our best line of defence against diseases like measles, and help stop outbreaks occurring in the community."

What are the symptoms of measles?

These might include:

  • A high temperature or fever
  • Dry cough and a runny nose
  • Greyish white spots in the mouth and throat (known as Koplik's spots)
  • Sensitivity to light and/or sore, red eyes
  • A fine rash that looks red on white skin but not black skin. It starts small, then becomes blotchy, and the surface of the skin feels rough, like sandpaper. Spots start small but can get bigger and join together (see pic, below)
measles rash
Typical measles rash on white skin

What should I do if I think my child has got measles?

If you suspect your child may have measles, contact your GP straight away. They will normally be able to diagnose the illness based on the 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.

At what age should my child have 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. They receive a further booster jab between 3 and 5 years old, before they start school.

If your child missed these jabs, you can still ask your GP for catch-up ones.

These immunisations are very effective, with 99% of children fully protected after both.

What if my child is too young to have the MMR but has come into contact with measles?

See your GP. 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 your child is under 6 months old and you have had measles or were vaccinated, they are likely to be immune to the infection for a few months, as antibodies will have been passed to your child in the womb.

Your GP can check to see if your child has this immunity. If they don't, 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.

What if I come into contact with measles when I'm pregnant?

If you're not fully vaccinated against measles, catching measles during pregnancy can be harmful both to you and your unborn baby, carrying a risk of miscarriage or a low birthweight baby.

The MMR vaccination cannot be given during pregnancy, so ensure you're vaccinated before you get pregnant.

How do you catch measles?

Measles is a respiratory infection caused by the rubeola virus that spreads easily through coughs and sneezes. The MMR vaccine is an effective protection against catching it but, if your child does catch it, signs usually develop 10 days after infection and can last for around 2 weeks.

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 they drinks lots of water
  • Use age-appropriate doses of paracetamol or ibuprofen, as directed by your doctor, to relieve fever and pain
  • Wipe your child's eyes clean with damp cotton wool (use a new piece for each eye)
  • Reduce the light in the room if your child is sensitive to it

You should keep your child away from other children until the rash has been apparent for at least 5 days.

And, if your child seems very unwell, you should seek further medical help promptly.

Pics: Getty Images/Science Photo Library


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