Measles vaccine: who can get jab, symptoms explained - and can you get illness twice?

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Parents are being urged to get their children vaccinated against potentially deadly measles before they start school

More than one in 10 children in England are at risk of catching potentially deadly measles as vaccination rates have dropped to their lowest level in a decade.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is urging parents to ensure their children have their measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) jab, as well as other routine vaccinations, before starting school.

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Measles causes a red blotchy rash to spread across the body (Photo: Adobe)Measles causes a red blotchy rash to spread across the body (Photo: Adobe)
Measles causes a red blotchy rash to spread across the body (Photo: Adobe) | Dan Race -

When should children have their MMR jab?

All children are invited for their first MMR vaccine when they’re 12 to 13 months old, and a second dose is given when they are three years and four months.

Adults and older children can be vaccinated at any age if they have not been fully vaccinated before.

Recent figures from July to September last year show that just 88.6% of children have had their first dose by the age of two, while only 85.5% have had both doses by age five.

This means that more than one in 10 children aged five are not up to date with their two MMR vaccine doses.

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A total of 95% of children need to be vaccinated to keep measles away, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the number of children getting vaccinated against MMR at the right time, the UKHSA said.

As international travel resumes, it is more likely that measles will be brought in from countries with higher levels of the disease, so it is important that vaccination levels increase in the UK.

Dr Vanessa Saliba, consultant epidemiologist at the UKHSA, said: “The MMR vaccine offers the best protection from measles, mumps and rubella which is why we’re calling on parents and carers to make sure their children are up to date with their two doses.

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“Even a small drop in vaccine coverage can have a big impact on population immunity levels and lead to outbreaks.

“I would urge parents to check if their children are up to date with their MMR vaccines and if not to get them booked in as soon as they are able. It’s never too late to catch-up.”

What are the symptoms of measles?

Measles is a highly infectious viral illness which can lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).

Infection from measles can also damage and suppress the whole immune system, which can leave children more susceptible to catching other infections.

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In rare cases, it can lead to a condition called SSPE (subacute sclerosing panencephalitis), which causes progressive destruction of the central nervous system, loss of motor control, epilepsy and death.

Once you have had measles, the body builds up resistance, or immunity, to the virus meaning it is highly unlikely that you will get it again.

The initial symptoms of measles develop around 10 days after infection and can 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 (fever), which may reach around 40C
  • small greyish-white spots on the inside of the cheeks

A few days later, a red-brown blotchy rash will appear which usually starts on the head or upper neck before spreading outwards to the rest of the body.

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In most cases the infection will clear in around seven to 10 days.

All children are invited for their first MMR vaccine when they’re 12 to 13 months old (Photo: Adobe)All children are invited for their first MMR vaccine when they’re 12 to 13 months old (Photo: Adobe)
All children are invited for their first MMR vaccine when they’re 12 to 13 months old (Photo: Adobe) | - stock.adobe.

How is measles prevented?

You can avoid catching measles by having the MMR vaccine. Thanks to the effectiveness of this jab, measles is now uncommon in the UK.

Since the measles vaccine was introduced in 1968, around 20 million measles cases and 4,5000 deaths have been prevented in the UK.

Anyone can get measles if they have not been vaccinated, or have not had it before, but it is most common in young children.

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Dr Nikki Kanani, GP and medical director for primary care at NHS England, said: “It is incredibly important that all parents and guardians ensure their child is up to date with their routine vaccinations, including MMR, as these vaccines give children crucial protection against serious and potentially deadly illnesses and stop outbreaks in the community.

“If your child has missed a vaccination, please contact your GP practice to book an appointment as soon as you can to make sure they have maximum protection against disease.”

Parents who are unsure if their child is up to date with all their routine vaccinations, should check their child’s Red Book (personal child health record) in the first instance, but GP practices are also able to carry out checks and book vaccine appointments.

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