UK ‘eliminates measles’ – what does it really mean?

On 26th September 2017 the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the UK has succeeded in ‘eliminating’ measles for the first time. 32 other countries in Europe have also achieved this.

This is good news – but it does not mean that measles has been wiped out altogether in this country. ‘Elimination’ means that there are currently not enough cases of measles in the UK for the disease to be able to circulate freely in the population. In 2016 there were 531 cases of measles in the UK, but these cases were confined to individuals or small groups of people and did not spread more widely. The last serious measles outbreak in the UK was in 2012-13. In these two years there were nearly 3000 confirmed cases of measles in the UK and one young man died.

At the moment levels of MMR vaccination in the UK are reasonably high – around the 95% level needed to keep measles in check. But measles is so infectious that vaccination levels do not need to fall much below this level for the disease to return to a country that has eliminated it. In Romania, for example, MMR vaccination rates are thought to vary between 75% and 80% and there have been 33 deaths from measles since January 2016.

At the moment 95% of children in the UK receive one dose of the MMR vaccine by the time they are five years old. However, two doses of MMR are needed to give high levels of protection. In 2016-17, fewer than 88% of UK children had received two MMR doses by their fifth birthday. There has been a slight fall in MMR vaccination rates over the past three years, and this means that there is a risk that cases of measles could start to rise again, especially in places like London where vaccine uptake is lower.

In 2015 the UK successfully elimated rubella (German measles). In the past few years there have been only a handful of confirmed rubella cases in the UK.

Read the full WHO statement on measles elimination

See more information about measles

See more information about the MMR vaccine

Page last updated: 
Monday, October 2, 2017

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