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Volume 744: debated on Monday 22 January 2024

I wish to update the House on an increase in measles cases across England and the actions that the Government and health system are taking to control the disease’s spread.

The current measles outbreak

Following an increase in measles cases across England, the UK Health Security Agency raised its incident response level to a national standard incident on 8 January 2024. There are three categories of incident: routine, standard and enhanced.

In 2023, there was an increase in confirmed measles cases, on which the UKHSA publishes statistics monthly. As of 18 January 2024, there have been 216 confirmed cases in the west midlands since 1 October 2023. NHS figures show that more than 3.4 million children under the age of 16 are unprotected and at risk of catching this serious and completely preventable disease. In response to this and the slow decline in measles, mumps and rubella vaccine uptake, the NHS carried out catch-up efforts in 2023, contacting parents and carers of unvaccinated children aged five and younger. This resulted in a 10% increase in MMR vaccine uptake compared with the previous year.

Measles is a highly infectious illness that can easily be spread between unvaccinated people. Complications from measles can be potentially life changing and include blindness, deafness and swelling of the brain, or encephalitis.

Analysis shows that one infected child in a classroom can infect up to nine other unvaccinated children, making it one of the most infectious diseases worldwide, and more infectious than covid-19. One in five children with measles will need to be admitted to a hospital for treatment—which could put additional pressure on the NHS.

Measles is not just a childhood disease and can be serious at any age. If caught during pregnancy, it can be very serious, causing stillbirth, miscarriage and low birth weight.

Actions under way to protect the public

Measles is a vaccine-preventable disease, with long-lasting immunity provided through the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Ninety-five per cent of the population must be vaccinated to provide sufficient population immunity. In some parts of the country, vaccination levels are below this threshold, allowing measles to spread rapidly through communities.

Data shows that the MMR vaccine is safe and very effective. After two doses:

around 99% of people will be protected against measles and rubella

around 88% of people will be protected against mumps

Two doses of the safe and effective MMR vaccine are needed for maximum life-long protection, with the first dose given around the child’s first birthday and the second dose given at around three years and four months old. However, anyone can catch up at any age on any missed doses. It is never too late to protect yourself, and everyone eligible for the MMR vaccination who has not yet taken up the offer should get vaccinated.

To support increasing the uptake of the MMR vaccine, NHS England announced on Friday 19 January a catch-up campaign from February for missed MMR vaccines, as part of a major new drive to protect children from becoming seriously unwell as measles continues to rise across the country. The campaign:

Will be targeted at parents and carers of unvaccinated and partially vaccinated children aged six to 11, encouraging them to make an appointment with their child’s GP practice for their missed MMR vaccine.

Builds on the work already done to contact parents of children aged nought to five for vaccination—a campaign which saw a 10% increase in the number of MMR vaccinations compared with the previous year, with two million texts, emails and letters sent to parents between September 2022 and February 2023.

Will target places with low uptake of the vaccine. Initial priority areas are London and the west midlands, with the NHS acting quickly to contact almost 1 million more people, including parents and carers of those aged six to 18, and young people aged 18 to 25, to invite them to catch up on their missed MMR vaccinations.

People who are unvaccinated can get catch-up jabs at MMR pop-ups in schools and other convenient places, including GP surgeries, asylum hotels and libraries.

GPs, teachers, and trusted community leaders are encouraging groups less likely to get their jab to come forward. NHS England, UKHSA and local health partners are also working together to deliver immunisation programmes tailored to the needs of under-vaccinated communities. For example, in the west midlands, MMR pop-up clinics are running in outbreak settings, and whole-school vaccination campaigns will be run in areas with the highest number of at-risk individuals. GP practices are also being supported to improve MMR uptake through convenient, tailored appointments and proactive conversations with concerned parents.

Longer-term actions

The recently published NHS vaccine strategy builds on the success of the NHS’s world-leading covid-19 vaccine programme, when local teams found innovative ways to reach people during the pandemic. It reflects views sought from a wide range of stakeholders and delivery partners, including the public, those who work in our health services, community and charity leaders, and colleagues in local government. This strategy will maximise convenience, with more vaccination services at locations that the public can easily access, such as libraries, leisure centres, social clubs or sports grounds, family hubs, support services and places of worship, or at local cultural and community events; with flexible opening hours; and with booking options.

Parents and carers can find out more about the different vaccines their child should have and when by visiting and searching for “NHS vaccinations and when to have them”.

It is vitally important that everyone takes up the vaccinations they are entitled to. The MMR vaccine is highly effective, safe and the best way to prevent the spread of measles and to protect children from becoming seriously unwell from the disease.