Measles cases reach record high in 2018

Measles in babies

More than 41,000 children and adults in Europe were infected with measles in the first six months of 2018, almost double the number infected in the whole of 2017. Reports also indicate that 37 people have died as a result of measles. Babies under one and people who have not been immunised are most at risk of contracting the highly contagious virus. Here are the symptoms to be aware of

Measles infection peaks in Europe this year

More than 41,000 children and adults in the World Health Organisation European Region were infected with measles in the first six months of 2018, almost double the number infected in the whole of 2017. 37 have reportedly died from the infection.

The total number of measles cases for the period January to July 2018 exceeds the 12-month totals for every other year so far this decade. The highest annual total for measles cases between 2010 and 2017 was 23,927 in 2017, and the lowest was 5,273 in 2016.

What are the symptoms of measles?

The first symptoms of measles appear around 10 days after infection, says the NHS. These can include:

  • A running nose, sneezing and a cough.
  • Sore eyes which might be sensitive to light.
  • A high temperature of around 40°C.
  • Small white spots on the insides of your cheeks

A full-body rash appears a few days after these symptoms.

Who is at risk of getting measles?

The measles vaccine is incredibly effective, and so measles is now uncommon in the UK. If you think you or your child has measles, you should contact your GP. If you haven't been fully vaccinated (had two doses of the MMR) or haven't had measles previously, you should let your GP know if you've been in contact with someone who has had measles. The MMR vaccine is given in two doses to babies and children before they start school.

Children and young people who have not received 2 doses of MMR vaccine are at risk. Unvaccinated people travelling to Romania, Italy and Germany, where there are currently large outbreaks of measles, are at particularly high risk. Anyone planning to travel to Europe over the Christmas period should check NaTHNaC travel health advice.

Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at PHE, says, “The UK recently achieved WHO measles elimination status and so the overall risk of measles to the UK population is low, however due to ongoing measles outbreaks in Europe, we will continue to see cases in unimmunised individuals and limited onward spread can occur in communities with low MMR coverage and in age groups with very close mixing.”

Measles in babies

measles full body rash

Because the first dose of the measles vaccine is not given until 13 months, babies under one are one of the groups most at risk of measles. If you think your baby is showing symptoms of measles, contact your doctor. Your baby should get better in a week or so, but babies very occasionally develop complications which can include vomiting, pneumonia, and febrile convulsions.

If your baby is under six months and you have immunity to measles, it is likely that you passed on your antibodies during pregnancy and he is protected. If your baby is over six months old and has been exposed to measles, it is possible that in some cases he will be given the MMR early, but you should contact your doctor for advice.

Measles in pregnancy

The NHS says that if you're not immune to measles and become infected while you're pregnant there is a risk of miscarriage or stillbirth. There is also a risk that your baby will be born prematurely and have a low birth weight.

How does measles spread?

Measles is highly contagious and spreads through droplets which come out of the nose and mouth of an infected person when they cough or sneeze. You can catch measles by breathing in these droplets. The measles virus can also survive on surfaces for a few hours. Measles is contagious until about four days after an infected person develops a rash.

What can we do to stop further spread of measles?

WHO leaders are calling for countries across Europe to put measures in place – or improve exisiting measures – to curb the growth in the number of measles cases. The WHO recommends that at least 95% of a country's population is vaccinated against the measles because it is so highly contagious.

“Following the decade’s lowest number of cases in 2016, we are seeing a dramatic increase in infections and extended outbreaks,” says Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “We call on all countries to immediately implement broad, context-appropriate measures to stop further spread of this disease. Good health for all starts with immunization, and as long as this disease is not eliminated we are failing to live up to our Sustainable Development Goal commitments.”