What is measles? Vaccine, rash, and symptoms as UK sees rising cases

·6-min read
What is measles? Vaccine, rash, and symptoms as UK sees rising cases

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has urged parents to check that their children are up to date with their MMR vaccinations amid an increase in cases of measles.

As of May 2023, the UK had recorded 49 cases of measles, compared to the 54 detected throughout the whole of 2022. Most cases were detected in London.

Dr Vanessa Saliba, consultant epidemiologist at UKHSA, said: “We are calling on all parents and guardians to make sure their children are up to date with their two MMR doses. It’s never too late to catch up, and you can get the MMR vaccine for free on the NHS whatever your age.

“Vaccines are our best line of defence against diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella and help stop outbreaks occurring in the community.”

She added: “Measles spreads very easily and can lead to complications that require a stay in hospital and, on rare occasions, can cause lifelong disability or death, so it is very concerning to see cases starting to pick up this year.”

So what is measles and what are the symptoms to watch out for?

What is measles?

According to the WHO, measles is a highly contagious, and sometimes fatal disease which remains an “important cause of death among young children”.

It is a viral illness of the respiratory system which, if left untreated, can have serious health complications including infection of the lungs and brain.

The disease can spread through contact with infected mucus and saliva.

What are the symptoms of measles?

According to the NHS, the initial symptoms of measles typically develop around 10 days after you've been infected.

Symptoms include:

  • cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing, and a cough

  • sore, red eyes that may be sensitive to light

  • a high temperature which may reach around 40°C

  • small, greyish-white spots on the inside of cheeks

A few days later, a red-brown blotchy rash will appear, usually starting on the head or the upper neck before spreading to the rest of the body.

How do you spot a measles rash?

A rash will usually appear after the first few days of feeling ill.

The NHS identifies four key characteristics of a measles rash:

  • made up of small red-brown, flat, or slightly raised spots that may join together into larger blotchy patches

  • usually first appears on the head or neck before spreading downwards to the rest of the body

  • slightly itchy for some

  • can look similar to other childhood conditions, such as slapped-cheek syndrome, roseola, or rubella.

Why has there been a rise in measles cases?

The UKSHA has warned that measles is now circulating in many countries around the world.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that Europe is likely to see a resurgence in cases unless parents get their children vaccinated.

During the Covid pandemic, the number of children who were vaccinated against measles fell, which has left “many children unprotected from serious infections and countries at increased risk of outbreaks,” according to the UKSHA.

NHS director of Vaccinations and Screening Steve Russell said: “The MMR vaccine has helped prevent the development of potentially life-threatening illness among millions and it is clear that, when uptake falls, infections rise, so I strongly urge parents to review the status of their child’s vaccinations so they can keep them and others protected from measles, mumps, and rubella.”

Is measles deadly?

Measles will usually pass in around seven to 10 days but, in some cases, it can lead to potentially life-threatening complications.

These include meningitis, febrile convulsions, liver infection (hepatitis), pneumonia, and encephalitis (infection of the brain).

Can you get measles more than once?

Once you've developed immunity after vaccination or suffered from measles once, your body builds up a tolerance, so it's unlikely you'll get measles again.

Who is most at risk of developing measles?

Unvaccinated children are most at risk of developing measles and contracting its subsequent complications.

Pregnant women are also at risk.

Any non-immune person (who has not been vaccinated or was vaccinated but did not develop immunity) can become infected by the virus.

How can you prevent measles?

Routine measles vaccinations for children have been in use for the past 50 years.

In the UK, measles is prevented by giving the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which is given in two doses as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.

In recent years, the UKSHA says that the number of children vaccinated against measles has fallen.

The uptake for the first dose of the MMR vaccine in children aged two years in England is 89 per cent and the uptake of two MMR doses in children aged five years is 85 per cent.

This is below the 95 per cent target set by the WHO, with the aim of achieving and maintaining elimination.

Alternatively, a treatment called human normal immunoglobulin (HNIG) is used if you're at immediate risk of catching measles.

How do you treat measles?

There is no specific antiviral treatment that exists for measles, but there are several measures you can take to help relieve your symptoms.

These include:

  • taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to soothe fever, aches, and pains

  • staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water

  • keeping the curtains closed to reduce light sensitivity

  • using damp cotton wool to clean the eyes

  • taking time off work or school for at least four days when the rash first appears.

The WHO also recommends that children diagnosed with measles should receive two doses of vitamin A supplements to prevent the risk of eye damage.

Who should have the MMR vaccine?

The first dose of MMR vaccine is offered to all children at one year old.

Children are given a second dose of MMR before they start school, usually at three years and four months.

There are certain circumstances where children should not have the MMR vaccination, which goes into detail on the NHS website.

Adults who missed out on the MMR vaccine as a baby and are therefore not immune can have the MMR vaccine on the NHS.

Is the MMR vaccine safe?

In the 1980s, there was some controversy about whether the MMR vaccine might cause autism following a 1998 study by Dr Andrew Wakefield.

This caused a dramatic drop in the number of children being vaccinated.

There was later found to be no evidence to link the MMR vaccine and autism.

While the MMR vaccine may not work for everyone and cause side effects in some children, the vaccine is generally recognised as safe.

However, deciding whether or not to get your child vaccinated is a personal choice, so make sure you speak to your GP who can best advise you.

In 2016, the WHO announced the UK had eliminated the disease because of the effectiveness of the vaccine.