Young doctors are being sent pictures of measles symptoms amid an explosion of the ‘forgotten’ illness.
Hundreds of kids in recent weeks have been sickened by the extremely contagious virus, which initially causes symptoms mimicking a cold, flu or Covid before its tell-tale rash.
Outbreaks were common in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s but eventually fizzled out thanks to vaccines.
It means thousands of doctors and medics have little or virtually no experience of treating patients infected with the illness, which can be deadly.
As a result, one GP hub in Birmingham — the epicentre of the current resurgence, with cases having soared to their highest levels since the 1990s — has sent images of the typical symptoms around to practice staff.
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Cold-like symptoms, such as a fever, cough and a runny or blocked nose, are usually the first signal of measles. A few days later, some people develop small white spots on the inside of their cheeks and the back of their lips. The tell-tale measles rash also develops, usually starting on the face and behind the ears, before spreading to the rest of the body
Latest UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data shows there were 1,603 suspected measles cases in England and Wales in 2023. The figure is more than twice as high as the 735 logged in 2022 and an almost five-fold rise compared to the 360 cases reported in 2021
Dr Mina Gupta, clinical chair at the Modality Group, which has 23 GP practices in Birmingham and the Black Country, told The Times: ‘We have had to send pictures of symptoms to our clinicians because young doctors just don’t know what measles looks like.’
The surge has been blamed on a slump in vaccination rates, which are at their lowest level in a decade.
Just 84.5 per cent of five-year-olds in England have had both MMR jabs, compared to the 95 per cent needed to prevent the virus from spreading.
Before the current uptick in measles cases, doctors were being reminded about the tell-tale symptoms.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health produced a poster urging medics to ‘think measles’ when treating children.
The NHS today launched a catch-up campaign, with pop-up clinics at schools and letters sent to millions, in the hopes of increasing vaccine uptake.
Dr Chris Bird, an A&E consultant at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, treated swathes of children sickened with measles in 2012, when he was working as a paediatrician in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
However, many of the medics he works with have never treated the illness before.
He told the newspaper: ‘We are getting five, six, up to seven cases of measles a day.
‘Before this, the odd case would trickle in — maybe one a year. A lot of my younger colleagues had never seen measles before. Some of them are very unwell.’
The UK had previously eliminated measles from British shores but lost its status after 231 cases were detected in the first quarter of 2019.
Transmission slumped again during the pandemic but it has picked up in recent months.
Some 64 cases were detected in the first week of 2024 — seven-times higher than the toll logged during the first week of 2023.
Throughout the whole of 2023, there were 1,603 suspected measles cases recorded in England and Wales.
The figure is more than twice as high as the 735 logged in 2022 and an almost five-fold rise compared to the 360 cases reported in 2021.
Hundreds of thousands of cases were logged each year in the aftermath of WW2, with rates plunging after the first vaccine was introduced in the late 60s. The MMR, rolled out in the late 80s, thwarted measles even further.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) last week labelled the situation a national incident, an internal mechanism signalling the growing public health risk.
It warned that the West Midlands, a measles hotspot, logged 216 confirmed cases and 103 probable cases between October 1 and January 18.
Around 80 per cent of cases were detected in Birmingham, while around 10 per cent were in Coventry. Most were among children under 10.
In England, 89.3 per cent of two-year-olds received their first dose of the MMR vaccine in the year to March 2023 (blue line), up from 89.2 per cent the previous year. Meanwhile, 88.7 per cent of two-year-olds had both doses, down from 89 per cent a year earlier
Before the current uptick in measles cases, doctors were being reminded about the tell-tale symptoms. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health produced a poster urging medics to ‘think measles’ when treating children
Health minister Maria Caulfield today urged mothers and fathers of unvaccinated children to ‘come forward’. She said: ‘It is not too late, there is no age cap, anyone who has not had their vaccination can come forward’
Dame Jenny Harries, the UKHSA’s chief executive, warned that outbreaks will spread to other towns and cities unless uptake of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine increases.
The jab given in two doses — at one year old, then three years and four months — and offers life-long protection.
At least 95 per cent of the population needs to be vaccinated to prevent outbreaks, under public health guidance.
This figure drops far lower in some areas with greater ethnic minority populations, to around 70 per cent, making them more susceptible to outbreaks.
Health minister Maria Caulfield today urged mothers and fathers of unvaccinated children to ‘come forward’. She said: ‘It is not too late, there is no age cap, anyone who has not had their vaccination can come forward.
‘The first vaccine will provide roughly 92 per cent protection, the second 98 per cent protection so the message is to come forward and get vaccinated.’
Ms Caulfield blamed the surge in measles on a ‘gradual’ 10-year decline in vaccine uptake due to the anti-vaxx movement and the Covid pandemic.
She pointed to Dr Andrew Wakefield, who falsely linked the MMR injection to autism in the 90s.
MMR jab uptake in England was about 91 per cent prior to the discredited doctor’s paper but plunged to 80 per cent in the following years. His study has since been retracted and Dr Wakefield was struck off.
Interruptions to routine vaccination due to the Covid pandemic is another factor, according to Ms Caulfield. Other experts have warned vaccine hesitancy, fuelled by the pandemic, has only worsened the problem.
She said: ‘Also concerns in particular communities, such as the Jewish and Muslim communities, over the type of vaccine used.
‘My message to those mums and dads of children not vaccinated at the moment is to come forward.
‘We have got a range of measures in place, letters are going out to parents of unvaccinated children – one million across London and the Midlands – we’ve got extra clinics being set up by GPs, we’ve got pop-up clinics in schools, we’ve got vaccine buses targeting communities with low vaccination rates, we held two MP briefing sessions on January 12th and 19th – one for the West Midlands, one for London – and today we have sent out information for MPs to help us get the message out to their constituents to come forward.’
Shadow health minister Preet Kaur Gill echoed Ms Caulfield’s vaccination call although described the current situation as ‘entirely preventable’.
She said: ‘The UK was deemed by the WHO to have eradicated measles just five years ago.
Measles, which mostly produces flu like symptoms and a rash, can cause very serious and even fatal health complications if it spreads to the lungs or the brain. One in five children who catch measles will need to go to hospital, with one in 15 developing serious complications like meningitis or sepsis
More than 300 cases have been identified in the West Midlands since October. Birmingham Children’s Hospital (pictured) has also seen 50 children needing treatment for the virus in the last month
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‘But since then MMR vaccination rates have plummeted, leaving tens of thousands of children completely unprotected meaning that now one-in-five children are not protected with two doses by the age of five.’
Ms Gill said the ‘warning signs could have been seen from space’ as she claimed there had been ‘complacency’ from the Government.
Measles can be caught at any age and prove fatal. Complications include blindness, deafness and swelling of the brain (encephalitis).
One in five children who catch it will need to be admitted to hospital for treatment, according to estimates.
Analysis shows that if just one child in a classroom is infected, they can pass the virus on to up to nine other unvaccinated children, making it one of the most infectious diseases worldwide and more infectious than Covid.
If pregnant women become infected, the virus can cause stillbirth, miscarriage and a baby to have a low birth weight.
People who missed the jabs as part of the childhood vaccination schedule can catch up at any time by contacting their GP practice, which can also inform them if they have had both jabs already.
Some may also be able to check their status online or through the NHS app.