Measles epidemic warning amid jab row

HEALTH experts issued a stark warning to parents in Suffolk last night after it emerged nearly one in four children is not receiving the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccination.

HEALTH experts issued a stark warning to parents in Suffolk last night after it emerged nearly one in four children is not receiving the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccination.

New figures reveal only 79% of children in the county who reached their second birthday between April 1 and June 30 were protected by the single MMR jab – significantly below the target of 95%.

Last night, Dr Torbjorn Sundkvist , a consultant in communicable disease control at the Suffolk Health Protection Agency, warned measles epidemics would become "bigger and bigger" unless the trend was reversed.

"The sporadic outbreaks will increase and if coverage drops down to the 60 to 70% level we will have outbreaks of this disease every winter and the virus will not die out," he said.

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He said fears that the combined MMR jab was linked to autism were unsubstantiated and it was the only way to bring the number of cases down to less dangerous levels.

"The single vaccine is not as effective and it cannot stop this disease. The combined vaccine is safe," he added.

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There have been six confirmed cases of measles in Suffolk this year, with four last year and only one for the previous five years.

Three cases of mumps have been confirmed this year, with none occurring over the last six years. There have been no cases of rubella in the county for six years.

According to the new figures, 79% of children in Suffolk reaching their second birthday between April 1 and June 30 were vaccinated.

Although the way of measuring the data has changed in this three-month period, the previous quarter's data showed that 85% of children received the jab.

Dr Sundkvist said: "The national figures show that, outside London, our region has the lowest uptake of the MMR vaccine. London has a lower uptake than Suffolk for the MMR but it also has low coverage of other vaccinations, mainly because it has mobile a population.

"I am even more concerned about the figures in Suffolk as parents are vaccinating their children for other diseases, such as Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio, and the coverage for these vaccines is running at about 95% or more. Parents appear to be making an informed choice not to give their children the vaccine, which I think is a bad choice.

"The coverage is as low as it's ever been. The problem is, of course, that the vaccine does not give you 100% protection. Even those that have the vaccine need a second dose. I estimate that about one in four children could be without immunity to measles and if they come in contact with the disease they could become very ill.

"The figures are getting worse because as coverage drops down further more and more children go around without immunity against one of the most contagious diseases around. If they go abroad or if someone brings measles back with them they will get infected. If there are more people around to spread the disease there is a greater risk of epidemics."

He added: "Parents are relying on the immunity of other children but everyone is doing that. They are in for a surprise."

Measles is difficult to contain and can spread even before the sufferer has a rash. An uninfected person can contract the viral disease, which can cause fatal lung and brain complications, just by breathing in the air in a room where an infected person has been up to two hours before.

Dr Sundkvist said that in every 3,000 cases of the disease there is at least one death.

"It is airborne and much more contagious than SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and smallpox," he added.

In the eastern region as a whole, only 78.8% of children reaching their second birthdays between April 1 and June 30 were vaccinated.

In comparison, 67.5% of children received the jab in London and 78.9% of children across the UK were given their primary immunisations.

In the same period last year 84.8% of children were vaccinated in the eastern region, 75.1% in London and 84.3% nationally.

This year there was a large increase in the number of confirmed cases of measles in the UK, with 145 in 2003 compared to 52 last year.

Mumps had also increased from 84 confirmed cases in 2002 to a massive 467 cases this year, whereas the number of rubella cases had dropped significantly.

In Essex 76.2% of children who had reached their second birthday between April 1 and June 30 were protected by the vaccination.

Dr Amelia Cummins, consultant in communicable disease control at the Essex Health Protection Agency, said that there had been approximately 25 confirmed measles cases in the county this year.

She said: "These were people who were previously not immunised and were a mixture of children and adults. It reflects the fact that the vaccination rates are low so it is easily transmitted in the community.

"The important thing is to create a situation where the number of people susceptible to the disease is so low that it cannot carry on being spread from one person to another.

"If you calculate the susceptibility of the population there comes a point, a threshold, when immunisation is so low you cannot stop measles from spreading."

She said the county was "not far off the threshold" and if the current rate of decline in the number of people being vaccinated continued the danger zone would be reached in a couple of years.

"There is a concern that we did have this cluster of places and we will see similar clusters and on a larger scale than we have now, which will affect more people."

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