Measles emergency sweeping UK – why some areas are worst hit than others

The UK is currently gripped by a measles emergency, with new data showing that three times as many infections this year have taken place compared to the entirety of 2023.

According to data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), analysed by Reach’s data unit, more than 1,000 lab-confirmed measles cases have been reported in England this year alone. This figure is more than triple the 362 cases recorded last year and represents the largest outbreak in over a decade.

The most recent outbreak is believed to have originated in Birmingham last October. Since then, 580 cases have been confirmed in the West Midlands. However, infection clusters have been identified in every region of England.

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Measles cases are on the rise (stock)
Measles cases are on the rise (stock)

London has seen 390 confirmed cases since the outbreak started, followed by 130 in the East Midlands, 69 in Yorkshire and the Humber, 64 in the North West, 49 in the East of England, and 48 in the North East.

The South East and South West are the least affected regions, with 25 and 19 confirmed cases respectively. Children under the age of 10 account for six out of 10 infections (62%), but adults are also being affected, with one in five cases (21%) reported in individuals over the age of 20.

While the UKHSA has not disclosed data showing the exact locations of confirmed outbreaks, it is possible to map measles notifications. GPs are required to alert the UKHSA every time they diagnose a suspected case of measles. Since the start of the year, over 5,000 potential cases have been reported in England.

Although these cases haven’t been laboratory-confirmed, they indicate possible infections in various council areas and can serve as an early warning for potential outbreaks. Birmingham has seen the highest number of suspected cases with 352 this year, including 12 in the most recent week.

Cases have risen dramatically (stock)
Cases have risen dramatically (stock)

Manchester follows with 123, then Leicester (119), Wandsworth (95), and Coventry (91). The UKHSA attributes the spread to low uptake of the MMR vaccine in certain parts of the country.

In England, 92.5% of children had received at least one dose of the MMR vaccine by the age of five in 2022-23, down from 93.4% the previous year and below the national target of 95.5%. However, in some areas, the vaccine uptake is significantly lower.

Dr Vanessa Saliba, UKHSA Consultant Epidemiologist, stated: “Measles cases have been rising across the country in recent weeks, particularly in London. Measles is extremely infectious, and outbreaks can spread very rapidly through communities like schools and nurseries, especially if those communities have low vaccination rates.

'Check your child's red book,' officials have said (stock)
‘Check your child’s red book,’ officials have said (stock)

“Parents should check their child’s Red Book now to ensure that children are up to date with the MMR and other routine vaccines. If you’re unsure, contact your GP practice to check. Your GP can offer the vaccinations your child needs to bring them up to date. If the NHS contacts you about catching up on missed vaccines, please respond as soon as possible.”

The major signs of measles to look out for include a high fever, coughing, sneezing, red and swollen watery eyes, and a rash that usually appears after these symptoms kick off.

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