HEALTH bosses last night spoke of their alarm after revealing the North East is suffering its biggest measles outbreak in 20 years.
Up to 137 people are thought to have contracted the disease this year, three times the total number of cases for the last five years added together.
Health chiefs laid the blame for the outbreak on the shoulders of parents who refused to have their children given the MMR vaccine after a now discredited piece of medical research.
They revealed last night that there had been 37 confirmed cases in the North East this year, with a further 100 suspected cases under investigation. Just 17 people fell ill with measles last year and there were no instances of the disease at all in 2005.
Experts at the Health Protection Agency are urging parents to ensure their children are fully vaccinated in order to prevent the number of cases spiraling out of control.
Measles is potentially a very serious illness that, on rare occasions, can be fatal. It is highly infectious and is spread through direct contact with an infected person or through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
There is no treatment, but it can be prevented by the measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine which health professionals insist is “safe and highly effective”. Two doses are required to ensure children are fully immunised.
Dr Roberta Marshall, acting regional director for the HPA in the North East said: “This measles outbreak is very alarming, especially as the majority of these cases could have been prevented as most were in children who were not fully protected with MMR.
“There are still many children out there who were not vaccinated as toddlers over the past decade and remain unprotected.
“Unfortunately this means that measles, which is highly infectious, is spreading easily among these unvaccinated children. Many of these children are now teenagers and still remain at risk.” Dr Marshall said GPs were able to vaccinate older children who had missed out on vaccinations when they were younger.
She said: “Our latest figures show that only 85% of eligible children have received both doses of the vaccine by their fifth birthday. This is well below the Government target of 95% which the World Health Organisation advises is necessary to prevent the widespread return of measles.
“While this figure is the average for the North East, there are still several areas in the region where uptake is even lower.”
And that, Dr Marshall said, means the number of cases is likely to increase.
She warned: “Measles should not be taken lightly, as you can never tell who will go on to develop the more serious complications of pneumonia and encephalitis.
“This is why it’s incredibly important to remember that measles is not a ‘harmless’ childhood disease.”
Dr Tricia Cresswell, executive director of public health for County Durham and Darlington, urged parents of unimmunised children to take steps to protect them.
She said: “There have been six confirmed cases and at least 10 further suspected cases of measles in young children and teenagers in County Durham in the last few days. We urge any parent whose children are not vaccinated with MMR to make an appointment at their GP practice as soon as possible, no matter what their age now.”
Nationally, the HPA has received reports of 1,348 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales in 2008. This compares with 990 cases for the whole of 2007 and represents a 36% year on year.
Concern over the MMR jab erupted in 1998 after The Lancet published a paper by Dr Andrew Wakefield claiming a link between the vaccine and autism. It was later rubbished by other doctors.
:: ANYONE who is concerned should contact their GP or NHS Direct (0845 46 47) in the first instance.