Measles in the UK: adolescents in the spotlight

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

May 2nd, 2013

Gary Finnegan

Health authorities in the UK have rolled out a national MMR vaccine catch-up programme targeting children and young teenagers who may have missed out on the vaccine when immunisation rates fell in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The £20 million immunisation drive will target around 1 million 10 to 14 year olds across the UK.

With more than 1,000 people affected by measles in Wales, and a 25-year-old having died as a result of measles-related complications, national – and global – experts are weighing in on the urgent need to stop the spread of the virus.

WHO Director General Margaret Chan and the UK’s immunisation director Prof David Salisbury have written a thoughtful piece for The Lancet medical journal. They highlight the series of outbreaks Europe has seen in recent years and how this jeopardises Europe’s efforts to eliminate measles by 2015.

Chan and Salisbury write: “The Swansea outbreak, like all measles outbreaks in Europe during the past 3 years including in other parts of the UK, France, the Ukraine, Spain, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, and Switzerland, was inevitable due to large numbers of people who were unimmunised. These costly outbreaks were completely preventable.”

They neatly summarise the solutions, some of which – catch-up programmes, targeted campaigns for hard-to-reach communities, and better communication with the public – are rapidly being implemented in real-time in Wales.

Another article in the same edition of the journal resurrects the debate about whether childhood vaccination should be mandatory, although the authors are sceptical about whether this is necessary – even casting doubt on the effectiveness of requiring immunisation.

The response of health professionals and officials has been swift and drawn praise. But parents too are playing a key role by participating in the conversation.

Dr Marion Lyons, National Lead for Health Protection at Public Health Wales, said the mainstream media has been hugely supportive during the outbreak and that parents have used social media to share positive information and support one another.

“There is no doubt that social media has had a big role to play in managing this outbreak, in a way it never has before. The use of social media has been superb,” Dr Lyons said.

“Parents have supported each other on the Health Board Facebook Page – they were able to say things to other parents that we couldn’t possibly say. It’s a new thing to be able to use that channel and well worth it; it’s paid tremendous dividends.”

Parents’ stories have focused on concern about the disease itself, conversations about where to access the vaccine, and even regret at exposing children to the risk of contracting a vaccine-preventable illness.

Images of parents in a European country queuing around the block to have their children immunised make an arresting sight. The public response to the outbreak in Wales may mark the end of this particular wave of vaccine-hesitancy.

With UK childhood immunisation rates already back to where they were before the MMR scare, the real test of how quickly the epidemic is brought under control will lie with the speed at which susceptible adolescents can be reached.