On Tuesday, Public Health England issued a statement about the “hotbed of measles” at this summer’s music festivals, after 38 suspected measles cases were reported in people who attended the events. It’s not just at the festivals either; whilst many consider measles to be a disease of the past, it has been making a comeback over the past few years.
Why is this happening? To answer that question, we’ll have to travel back to the late 1990s…
The timing of these cases is being linked to the coming of age of the Wakefield generation. In 1998, a gastroenterologist named Andrew Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet journal claiming to prove a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. This paper was pounced on by the media and the ensuing panic it stirred up led to a substantial reduction in the number of parents getting their children the MMR vaccine.
To be clear, this paper has since been discredited, retracted by the journal that published it and Andrew Wakefield was struck off the medical register. In 2011, another medical journal actually referred to it as the ‘most damaging medical hoax in the last 100 years’. Unfortunately, by the time this happened much of the damage had already been done.
Skip forward 18 years and we have a large number of unvaccinated music-lovers gathering together in huge, sweaty crowds – cue the hotbed Public Health England is talking about.
We spoke to Dr Sian Jones to find out more about measles and its prevention…
What is measles?
Measles is an incredibly contagious infection with potentially serious complications, some of which can be fatal. It is one of the most common causes of vaccine-preventable death in the world.
The infection is caused by the measles virus and usually results in an illness characterised by a fever and rash lasting between 7-10 days. It is more common in children, but anyone who has not been vaccinated is susceptible.
It is spread via airbourne droplets when those infected by the virus cough or sneeze. The virus can also live on surfaces for up to 2 hours, so they can be passed on by touching a contaminated object.
Most people make a complete recovery but measles can cause serious complications, especially in older children or adults, those with a weakened immune system and pregnant women. Up to 10% of patients who catch measles need to be admitted to hospital and some of the rarer complications can be fatal. Measles used to be a common infection in the UK, but has been greatly reduced thanks to public health efforts and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
What are the symptoms?
People generally develop symptoms approximately 10 days after becoming infected. The first symptoms usually include:
- Runny nose, sneezing and cough
- Sore throat
- Mild conjunctivitis (red, watery eyes)
- A high temperature
- Greyish-white spots on the inside of the cheeks – known as Koplik spots
Around 2 – 4 days after these early symptoms, a rash made up of red-brown spots often appears on the neck and spreads over the rest of the body. The spots can join together forming confluent red patches.
If you suspect that you or your child have measles or if you have been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with measles and have not been fully immunised (i.e. had both MMR vaccinations) you should contact a doctor immediately. Do not go to A&E or the GP surgery as you may infect other patients.
What can you do to prevent measles?
There is currently no specific treatment available for measles, although supportive care (e.g. fluids to keep hydrated, or mediations to reduce fever) can help. With no specific treatment, prevention is even more crucial.
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was developed in 1963 and helped to reduce deaths related to measles by 75% between 2000 and 2013.
The first vaccination is given to children at 13 months with a second dose before starting school. However, if a person does not get vaccinated as a child, it can also be given in adulthood – it’s never too late to get protected.
Dr Sian Jones is a GP in London, working within the NHS and with GPDQ, the UK’s first on-demand app for GP visits, offering GP consultations and vaccinations at your home, work or hotel. She has also worked in emergency medicine in London and Australia, exhibition medicine in India and Sierra Leone, and has been the lead medic for Tough Mudder, Velothon, Sierra Leone Street Child Marathon and Muderella.