Welsh measles: time to worry?

Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?

MMR vaccine being drawn into a syringe

The outbreak in Wales of the measles virus is no trivial matter. By midday on Monday, there were 765 cases in the affected area in the south of Wales.

The good news is that nobody has died, yet, and the virus has theoretically been wupped by modern medicine. The bad news is that this latest epidemic is not expected to peak for another four weeks, leading medical experts to say that a death is only “a matter of time“. There are still around 5,000 children at risk in the Swansea area, according to national media.

According to the NHS website, “measles is a highly infectious viral illness. It can be very unpleasant and possibly lead to serious complications, including blindness and even death.” Effects? Cold-like symptoms, red eyes, sensitivity to light, a fever, spots in the mouth and throat, and…the trademark…a red blotchy rash. Don’t wait for the rash.

In fact, the advice is not to wait for symptoms at all. Measles has a vaccine: the MMR. I’m no fan of needles, but if you’re a parent suffering terrible angst about whether or not to let a nurse stab your child, I can tell you I honestly don’t remember it happening to me. Unless I’ve repressed the memory somehow, it hasn’t scarred me for life (that’s BCG). MMR is done twice – at 13 months and just before the child starts school. But I’m no doctor – read the NHS website.

Despite the wondrous MMR (which I gather, like everything, is not 100 per cent successful), the number of measles cases in the UK since October 2012 presents a very scary graph:

measles notifications in Wales by week

The NHS likes to stress that it’s never too late to get an MMR vaccine. Adults can still get measles, even though it mostly affects children.

The other problem facing medical practitioners is how easy the public is to scare, and when it comes to their children, people don’t take kindly to risk. A 1998 study which linked MMR to autism scared the pants off policy-makers and parents, but has since been extremely thoroughly refuted.

Bottom line: fortunately, the UK’s immunisation programme is advanced enough that this won’t be a national catastrophe. But it may still be a personal one for some people in Wales.


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