Britain has managed to eliminate measles for the first time, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
It means that no indigenous cases of the disease have been recorded in the UK for three years — a “huge achievement” that has been attributed to a high rate of children being vaccinated.
It doesn’t mean that measles has been entirely wiped out in the UK, as cases are still brought in from overseas. But these cases appear in relatively small clusters and aren’t spreading.
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“This is a huge achievement and a testament to all the hard work by our health professionals in the NHS to ensure that all children and adults are fully protected with two doses of the MMR vaccine,” said Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England.
“We need to ensure that this is sustained going forward by maintaining and improving coverage of the MMR vaccine in children and by catching up older children and young adults who missed out.”
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Health experts have, however, warned that the UK mustn’t get complacent.
Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO regional director for Europe, said: “Outbreaks continue to cause unnecessary suffering and loss of life, and routine immunisation coverage is decreasing…We will eliminate these diseases from our region, but need to be ready to walk to hardest last mile.”
Just last week it was announced England had reached the target of getting 95% of children to have had the first dose of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine by their first birthday, reported the BBC.
That is an important milestone, as it means the disease can’t spread because a high percentage of children are vaccinated.
The elimination of measles in the UK was interrupted by a false claim in the 1990s that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism, which caused a drop in vaccination rates and knocked the UK off track.
During the first six months of this year, there have been fewer than 100 cases in England, brought in from abroad, and small clusters in Wales and Northern Ireland.
That is a dramatic fall compared to previous years.
In 1967, the year before the vaccine was introduced, there were over 460,000 cases, and 99 people died, according to the BBC. By the 1980s, that was down to around 10,000 cases a year. Even five years ago, there were still more than 2,000 cases a year.
Measles causes a range of symptoms from coughing and diarrhoea to pneumonia, but fatal cases are now very rare. Since 2006, just two children have died from the disease.
A total of 33 countries across Europe have now eliminated the disease, according to WHO based on 2016 reporting.