Outbreaks of measles worldwide pose a threat to the UK

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Health officials fear continuing outbreaks of measles across Europe and the rest of the world could lead to more cases in the UK unless more preventive action is taken.

There have recently been cases where the disease spread from Italy to England, and the other way from England to Italy.

Measles can cause severe complications including encephalitis, pneumonia and even death, and is now a target for elimination in all World Health Organization (WHO) regions.

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Between 1 January 2018 and 6 July 2018 there were 757 laboratory confirmed measles cases in England. Cases were reported in most areas with London (268), the South-East (161), South-West (118), West Midlands (85) and Yorkshire and Humberside (73) reporting the most cases (based on provisional figures).

Public Health England advises people to ensure they have had 2 doses of MMR vaccine.

The European Region adopted the goal of eliminating measles in the entire Region by 2015 but this objective was not met. According to WHO data, in 2017, 22,373 measles cases were reported in the region, including 35 deaths.

Measles outbreaks are still occurring in several European countries, including Ukraine, Serbia, Russia, Albania, Italy, France, Greece and UK and in total, 21,478 cases have been reported to date since January 2018.

In Italy, 5,400 cases were reported in 2017 and 1,716 cases between 1 January 2018 and 31 May 2018.

Most cases occurred in young adults, but the highest incidence was seen in infants under one year of age. In total 8 measles-related deaths have been reported in Italy since January 2017.

Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England, said: “Until measles is eliminated from all WHO regions, cross-border transmission of cases is likely to occur when unvaccinated individuals travel to countries where measles is circulating, become infected and travel back to their home country – thus importing the measles virus.”

Professor Walter Ricciardi, President of the Italian National Health Institute, said: “Recently, some measles clusters in England have been linked to importations from Europe. Since 2017, 7 measles cases have been imported into England from Italy (3 in 2017 and 4 in 2018).

“Importations from the UK to Italy have also occurred: since January 2018, 4 measles cases in Italy have been imported from the UK, leading to 2 small measles clusters.”

The only effective way to protect yourself and your community against measles is by vaccination. This is because measles is one of the most infectious diseases known to man – it spreads easily through direct contact and droplets in the air. The measles virus survives up to 2 hours in the air or surfaces, even after an infected person has left the area.

Cases of measles are most infectious in the first 3 days before the onset of rash, so infection can be spread before anyone suspects the case.

Raising awareness of measles circulation in many European countries is important to encourage the public to check their vaccination status before travelling abroad. The European Centre for Disease Control, the Royal College of GPs and the Royal College of Nurses have also recently reminded people to check their MMR status before travelling.

Two doses of measles-containing vaccine are nearly 100% effective in preventing the disease. Achieving high vaccine coverage (over 95%) will help to protect the whole community, including babies and vulnerable children who cannot be vaccinated, by reducing the risk of measles spreading in the population.

More information about measles and its prevention

National Health Service 
Public Health England 
World Health Organisation 

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.