Resurgence of the Measles Virus

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Vaccination programmes have done a lot to cut down the infection rate of a number of different conditions, not only in the UK but across the world. Regular vaccination can eventually result in the complete elimination of diseases from the population, and two great examples of how this can be achieved are smallpox and polio. Both conditions have been eradicated through a rigorous, large scale vaccination programme, and through that, countless lives have been saved from death and paralysis.

However if a vaccination programme is not followed, then there can be an increase in the rate of infection as a consequence. In this article we look at a recent outbreak of the measles infection, and what may have caused it.

A brief history of Measles and the MMR Vaccine

Measles is a viral infection which can affect people of any age, but usually children. The virus is highly contagious and transmitted through any contact with the respiratory fluids of someone suffering from the infection. Contact with a person  with measles is thought to have a 90% chance of transmission in most cases, which explains why the disease is such a concern for health authorities.

Measles presents with a number of symptoms, the most well-known of which is a distinctive rash, ear infection, and diarrhoea. The condition itself has no treatment and in many cases resolves itself. However it can also lead to very severe complications, including encephalitis, brain damage, and even death.

Before the invention of the MMR vaccine in the late 1960s, measles was a major cause of childhood illness across the globe. However since the introduction of the vaccine, which also protects against mumps  and rubella, the number of infections each year has dropped dramatically.

The MMR Vaccine is offered as part of a routine childhood immunisation programme implemented by the NHS in the UK, and other health authorities across the world. The vaccine is usually administered 1 year after birth and shortly before a child begins going to school. In most cases one dose is enough to immunise against the condition, but a second jab is given to account for those people who do not develop strong enough immunity after the first dose.

Concerns about the safety of the MMR Vaccine

In 1998 a study was published by Dr Andrew Wakefield which reported a possible link between use of the MMR vaccine and incidences of autism and bowel disease. This caused significant concern amongst the public about the safety of the MMR vaccine, and this was taken very seriously by health authorities who commissioned and conducted a number of detailed investigations to determine whether or not these claims were true.

Since Dr Wakefield’s initial report, evidence has shown that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. However despite this it is thought that many parents might have refused the vaccine in the past, and may perhaps continue to do so. The evidence for this is in a recent resurgence in the rate of measles infections in the UK, which indicates a decline in the uptake of the measles vaccine.

Recent outbreaks of measles in the UK

Outbreaks of measles in the UK have been on the rise since 2009, when a high number of infections were reported from two schools in North Wales. Since a general increase was noted, most dramatically reaching 496 cases in the first few weeks of 2011 compared to 374 cases reported across the whole of 2010. While this increase sparked an increase in the uptake of the vaccine, a recent outbreak of the condition in Liverpool (February 2012) suggests that there are still areas where the use of the vaccine could be increased.

These outbreaks are thought to be a result of a decrease in the use of the MMR vaccine as a consequence of concerns about its safety, however they have had a positive effect in that there now seems to be an increase in the vaccines uptake which will undoubtedly result in a decrease in infection rates.

Recent outbreaks of measles in the rest of the world

In other parts of the world measles outbreaks have been significantly more serious, showing how potent this infection can be if left unchecked. In March 2010 a measles epidemic was declared in the Philippines, and France declared a total of over 17,000 cases of measles between 2008 and 2011, 7,500 of which occurred between January and April of 2011.

As recently as late 2011 and 2012 further outbreaks have been reported as far as New Zealand and Australia.

Dealing with Measles Outbreaks

Because the condition has no treatment and is so contagious, the only effective way of dealing with measles epidemics and outbreaks is to increase vaccination. This protective treatment is an invaluable way of not only preventing individuals from being infected, but of preventing the virus from spreading far and wide as it would do if left unchecked.

The hope is that if at least 95% of the world’s children are provided with measles vaccination, the disease might suffer the same fate as smallpox and polio and disappear entirely.

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