NHS Shetland is urging parents to protect their children against measles by having them vaccinated.
The number of cases of measles in the UK is rising: there were over 300 cases in England and Wales in the first four months of this year, 10 times as many as the same period last year.
Measles is one of the most infectious diseases and can spread quickly through the air. It can cause severe illness and disability, and in very serious cases, can lead to death. Although there have not been any cases of measles in Shetland for several years, each time an unvaccinated child travels south or comes into contact with visitors to Shetland they are at risk of catching measles, according to the health authority.
For example, a person on public transport who is coughing and sneezing may have the early symptoms of the illness.
Families travelling abroad this summer should also have their children vaccinated. Measles is common in many parts of the world, including Europe. So far this year there have been over 10,000 cases of measles in Europe – 7,000 of these were in France, where two people died.
NHS Shetland consultant in public health medicine Susan Laidlaw said: “The good news is that children can be protected against measles by the MMR vaccination, which also protects against mumps and rubella. However, uptake of the MMR vaccination is still low in Shetland. Of 266 children born in 2008, only 86.1 per cent had been given their first MMR injection by the time they reached their second birthday in 2010. This is the lowest uptake in Scotland. Children who have not been vaccinated with MMR are at risk of catching measles, mumps and rubella.”
These diseases were very common years ago and many older people living in Shetland may well remember how serious these illnesses could be, especially if a young child caught measles or a pregnant woman caught rubella (German measles). Before a vaccine was widely available, half a million children caught measles and a hundred died from it each year in the UK.
Since MMR was introduced in the 1980s, the number of infections has reduced dramatically. Although many parents of young children may never have come into contact with measles, mumps or rubella, these infections have not disappeared, and if the uptake of MMR vaccine is not high enough to protect the whole community, they become more common again.
Dr Laidlaw said health professionals were working hard to increase the uptake of MMR. She said: “Clearly parents have a choice, but we believe they should make their decision based on scientific evidence. We would urge all parents to get their child immunised with MMR when they are invited by their GP and to seriously consider the risks if they leave their child unprotected. The evidence is that MMR is the safest way to protect children against measles, mumps and rubella. It is never too late to get older children protected as well if they have not already had the vaccination.” Any concerns can be discussed with a GP or health visitor, she added.
Students are also encouraged to protect themselves with MMR before they travel during the summer break. Measles spreads easily in places like summer camps and universities and any students who have not had two doses of MMR, or who are not sure, should arrange to get fully immunised.