Leicester among worst places hit in 'biggest measles outbreak in more than a decade'

A child about to be given the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccination into their arm by a surgery nurse with a hypodermic syringe, England, UK.
-Credit: (Image: Getty)

Leicester remains among the worst places hit as measles infections skyrocket across the country. The outbreak started in October, with Birmingham at its epicentre.

Now, cases are spreading around the country – and Leicester has had the third highest number of suspected infections. There have been 132 reports of the illness since the start of the year in the city.

Of those, 12 suspected cases were reported in the three weeks to Sunday, June 2 – the most recent data available. Comparatively, cases are much lower in the county.

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Blaby is the hardest hit of the county's districts and boroughs, with 45 suspected cases this year and three in the three weeks to June 2. Harborough and North West Leicestershire have reported the fewest at nine each since Monday, January 1, and one each in the latest three weeks of data.

Where an illness is believed to be measles, a sample must be sent for lab testing to confirm it is the disease. Not all suspected cases will ultimately be confirmed as measles, so the actual number of infections is likely to be lower.

Birmingham is still the worst hit with 382 infections since the beginning of January. The country’s second city reported 22 suspected cases in the three weeks to June 2. Manchester has the second highest number with 141 overall, including nine in the last three weeks of data.

Data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows, since the current outbreak began in Birmingham at the start of October, there have been 1,749 lab-confirmed cases. That includes 1,531 confirmed cases so far in 2024.

This figure is more than quadruple the 362 cases seen all last year and the biggest outbreak in more than a decade, the Reach Data Unit said. Separate figures show that in the three weeks up to June 3, the UKHSA has received notifications of 627 suspected cases of measles from GPs in England and Wales.

The UKHSA has now sent out letters to clinicians around the country offering guidance for protecting patients with weakened immune systems. That could include cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy as well as people with genetic disorders and certain diseases or conditions.

Anyone with a weakened immune system – particularly children, who are more likely to come into contact with someone infected with measles – is more at risk from serious complications of measles, such as viral pneumonitis, an infection of the lungs.

The guidance sent to clinicians responsible for caring for patients with weakened immune systems warns that “there has been an increase in the number of confirmed measles cases and local outbreaks being reported across England” and that “children under 10 years of age have been particularly affected in the current outbreak”.

Parents are advised to make sure schools and nurseries are aware of the risks and the need to quickly alert the family if any classmates are diagnosed with measles. People are also advised to ensure all family members and close contacts are fully vaccinated and to seek guidance if anyone with a weakened immune system is exposed to measles.

The UKHSA blames the spread on low take-up of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine in parts of the country. In England, 92.5 per cent of children had received at least one dose of the MMR vaccine by the age of five in 2022-23, down from 93.4 per cent the previous year and below the national target of 95.5 per cent.

Only 84.5 per cent have received both doses. The World Health Organisation said coverage must be 95 per cent or higher to achieve population-level immunity.

Dr Vanessa Saliba, consultant epidemiologist at UKSHA said: “Measles can be a serious infection that can lead to complications especially in young children, pregnant women and those with a weakened immune system. Nobody wants to see their child or loved ones sick with measles, or put others who are more vulnerable at risk.

“The best way to protect vulnerable close contacts from measles is the MMR vaccine. Two doses give lifelong protection and it’s never too late to catch up. Anyone not up-to-date should make an appointment as soon as possible with their GP practice.”

The key symptoms of measles include a high fever, coughing, sneezing, red and sore watery eyes, and a rash that usually appears after the initial symptoms.