Holidaymakers have been warned to check that they have been vaccinated against measles before travelling abroad, after it was revealed that 37 people have died from the disease as the number of cases in Europe soared in the first six months of 2018.
The World Health Organisation's (WHO) European office said more than 41,000 measles cases were reported in the region during the first half of the year – more than in all 12-month periods so far this decade.
The previous highest annual total was 23,927 cases in 2017. A year earlier, only 5,273 cases were reported.
The agency said half of this year’s total – some 23,000 cases – occurred in Ukraine.
France, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Russia and Serbia also had more than 1,000 infections each.
Public Health England (PHE) said people who are travelling to countries which have suffered outbreaks should ensure they are up-to-date with their measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination before travelling.
Those who are starting university or attending festivals were also advised to get themselves vaccinated.
The WHO has called for better surveillance and increased immunisation rates to prevent the disease from becoming endemic.
While measles is not too serious, it can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening complications in some people, such as infections of the lungs (pneumonia) and brain (encephalitis).
In 2016, the WHO confirmed that measles had been eliminated from the UK, but due to its prevalence in Europe there continue to be imported cases of the disease in this country.
Figures from PHE show that from January 1 to August 6 there were 807 laboratory confirmed measles cases in the UK, many of which were linked to ongoing outbreaks in Europe.
It said 58% of confirmed cases have been among children aged 15 and younger, who missed out on their MMR vaccine when they were younger.
Commenting on the WHO figures, Dr Pauline Paterson, co-director of the Vaccine Confidence Project team at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “With a vaccine-preventable disease, one case is one too many, and the number of measles cases so far this year is astounding.
“Measles is a highly infectious disease that can spread rapidly and lead to serious complications – a very high vaccination coverage of 95% is needed for community protection.
“If the coverage dips below this in certain regions, measles cases can spread and outbreaks can and are occurring."
She continued that people must ensure they are vaccinated against measles to eliminate it, adding there were no proven safety concerns over the MMR immunisation.
Professor Peter Openshaw, president of the British Society for Immunology, added: “There has been a safe and effective vaccine to protect against measles since 1968, which has revolutionised the health of our children and saved many lives.
“The number of cases in the UK dropped from almost half a million per year before the vaccine was introduced to the hundreds each year now.
“Most of the benefits have been via the triple measles–mumps–rubella (MMR) vaccine that is proven to be safe and effective in innumerable studies."
What are the symptoms of measles?
The symptoms of measles develop around 10 days after infection occurs and include:
- Cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing and a cough
- Sore, red eyes that may be sensitive to light
- A high temperature, which may reach around 40C (104F)
- Small greyish-white spots on the inside of the cheeks
A few days after the initial symptoms, a red-brown blotchy rash will appear.
This usually starts on the head or upper neck before spreading outwards to the rest of the body.
What should you do if you think you have measles?
If you think you have measles, you should contact your GP.
The illness takes around seven to 10 days to pass, and while there is no cure (like when you have a cold) the NHS recommends doing the following to help relieve the symptoms:
- Taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve fever, aches and pains
- Drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration
- Closing the curtains to help reduce light sensitivity
- Using damp cotton wool to clean the eyes
- Staying off school or work for at least four days from when the rash first appears as it is highly contagious
Is measles easy to avoid?
While measles is highly contagious - 90% of the people a person suffering from the infection comes into contact with will develop the virus if they are not already immune to it - a vaccine can help prevent against it and is very effective.
Measles is one of the most contagious illnesses known to humans, and if people do not get both doses of the MMR vaccine, it can spread incredibly rapidly.