A “national call to action” has been made by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) after a worrying surge in the spread of measles in London and the West Midlands.
Professor Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the health board, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that people have “forgotten what measles is like”, and that children can be unwell for a week or two with symptoms including a nasty rash, high fever and ear infections.
She added that the virus is highly infectious, with health officials warning that serious complications can arise that include hospitalisations and death.
This comes as official figures show uptake of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is at its lowest point in more than a decade.
There were 1,603 suspected cases of measles in England and Wales in 2023, a sharp increase from 735 cases in 2022 and 360 in 2021.
In the largest surge of cases outside of the capital, the West Midlands has confirmed 198 cases, with a further 104 “likely” cases. Meanwhile, Birmingham Children’s Hospital has said it has treated more than 50 children since December.
Ahead of a visit to Birmingham on Friday, where cases have been rising rapidly, Dame Jenny said: “The focus this morning obviously is on the West Midlands and I’m going there, but I think the real issue is we need a call to action right across the country.
“We had established measles elimination status in the UK, but in fact our vaccination rates now have dropped on average to about only 85% of children arriving at school having had the two MMR doses.
“In the West Midlands, that’s in some areas down to 81%, (and) if we go down to the Surrey Heartlands Integrated Care Board area, that’s just over 70%.
“So we are well under the recommended coverage for MMR vaccination that the WHO (World Health Organisation) recommends.”
Measles vaccinations were introdced in the UK in 1968 and are thorugh to have prevented an estimated 4,500 deaths and prevented 20 million measles cases.
Dame Harries said that the health body carried out a specific risk assessment last July in London because up to 20% of children were entering school unvaccinated.
She said this was a “significant risk” to the population in London.
“Thankfully, many families have come forward and children have been vaccinated, but the rates remain low,” Dame Harries added.
“And now of course, what we’re seeing, predictably, we’re seeing that swing move to other, particularly inner city areas, where we know vaccination rates are low.”
False concerns over the vaccinations links to autism called the uptake rate to drop during the late 1990s, which was later disproven given there was no evidence to support the claim.
She said uptake of MMR vaccines does differ among communities.
Asked which communities, she said: “This is an important point, I think, for the West Midlands, for those in Muslim communities, they will be not keen to take up one of the MMR vaccines that we offer which has a pork-based derivative.
“But it’s really important that they’re aware there is a non-porcine vaccine which is available to them and very effective.
“So it’s that sort of understanding and ensuring that knowledge is available to people so they can make choices.”
She said the vaccine programme in the UK is “clearly not” where the UKHSA wants it to be, adding “we want it to be 95% (coverage)”.
She added: “It’s quite common with vaccination programmes that when the risk is perceived to have gone away, then the concern to get vaccinated may drop off and so one of the reasons for flagging this today is to remind people that cases are still out there. This is a serious illness.”