Measles is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It is spread either via droplets or the air when an infected person breathes, sneezes or coughs. It can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and death.
Measles infection also damages and suppresses the whole immune system, so people who have had measles are more likely to catch other infectious diseases. This effect can last for as many as three years after they recover from measles.
In high-income regions of the world, such as Western Europe, measles still causes death in about 1 in 5000 cases. But in the poorest regions, as many as 1 in 100 will die. Before widespread vaccination was introduced, the disease caused an estimated 2.6 million global deaths each year. And worldwide, measles is still a major cause of death. In 2016 about 90,000 people died of measles, although this was the first year on record when global measles deaths fell below 100,000 a year.
However, following these years of decline, when vaccination dramatically reduced the number of deaths, in 2022 measles cases rose by 18%, and deaths by 43%, compared with 2021. During this time, worldwide vaccination coverage also declined to its lowest level since 2008. See this World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
Since a measles vaccine was introduced in the UK in 1968, the UK Health Security Agency estimates that 20 million measles cases, and 4,500 deaths, have been averted.
Although measles transmission was briefly stopped in the UK altogether in 2016 and 2017, it re-started in 2018. It stopped again during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, during 2023 cases increased once again, and have since continued to grow, especially in the West Midlands and London areas of the country.
At the start of 2024, the UK Health Security Agency declared a national incident, and urged parents to get their children vaccinated against measles, if they weren’t already. Two doses of vaccine are highly effective in preventing infection.
The World Health Organization also issued an urgent warning over the very large increase in measles cases across Europe.