Suddenly measles is all over the news again as sadly cases in Europe this year have hit a record high with 41,000 people affected. In the UK, we have already had 807 cases so far in 2018: here’s everything you need to know about this serious infection.
1. Most cases in England are being picked up when families travel to Europe – the countries with the most number of cases are Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia and Greece. But there are also higher than normal rates in France and Italy.
2. Unfortunately, measles is easy to pick up – the virus is very infectious and spread by the millions of droplets when someone coughs or sneezes. The measles virus can even survive in these droplets on a surface for a few hours: so just by touching that your little one can get infected.
Early symptoms of measles
3. Measles has the early symptoms of other viruses: a high temperature, runny nose and a cough. But with measles children also get sore eyes, grey spots in their mouth and a blotchy rash which typically starts on the head and neck before spreading. Symptoms usually start 10 days after catching the infection.
The measles rash
4. The rash of measles has a characteristic pattern – it comes about 3 or 4 days after the runny nose and temperature, and begins as small flat brownish spots on the head and neck. It then spreads over the body and becomes much more blotchy.
5. Measles lasts 7-10 days and is usually uncomplicated in most children. Some children are much more at risk of problems and these are babies under 1 year, children with a weak immune system and actually teenagers. Healthy children over 1 year old are the least likely to have problems.
Serious life-threatening complications
6. We worry more about measles than other viruses because it can have serious and life-threatening complications in some people including meningitis, encephalitis and hepatitis. Measles can also cause a squint if the virus affects the muscles or the nerves of the eyes. In 1962 Roald Dahl’s 7 year old daughter Olivia died of encephalitis as a result of measles.
7. There is a very rare complication of measles which happens several years after the infection called SSPE – it is a fatal brain condition and happens in 1 per 25,000 cases of measles. It is incredibly rare but very cruel as there is no way of knowing if it is going to develop and so many years after the illness.
How to prevent measles
8. The best way to prevent measles is to have the MMR vaccine. This is given at 1 year and at 3-4 years as part of the pre-school vaccinations. After 2 doses, 99 out of 100 children will be protected against measles – that’s a very good success rate for a vaccination.
9. In England, currently the highest rates are in London and the South East and mainly affecting teenagers and young adults who have missed out on their childhood vaccines. Travelling to Europe for backpacking and festivals puts them in contact with large numbers of people who may be infectious.
10. If your child has missed their MMR do not worry. They can catch up anytime at the GP surgery. If you’re not sure and they have an extra vaccine, it causes no harm. If you are pregnant and not vaccinated, you are usually offered an MMR vaccine after delivery.
Dr Ellie Cannon author of ‘Keep Calm; the New Mum’s Manual’ (Vermilion) available at Amazon.com.