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Measles: Why are cases rising and what are the symptoms?

Measles cases are likely to spread rapidly unless more people are vaccinated, the UK Health Security Agency has warned.

Pop-up clinics are being opened to get more children vaccinated.

What is measles?

Measles is a highly contagious disease which is spread by coughs and sneezes.

It normally clears up after seven to 10 days. However, it can lead to serious problems if it infects other parts of the body, such as the lungs or brain.

Complications can include pneumonia, meningitis, blindness, and seizures.

Babies and young children, pregnant women and those with a weakened immune system are more at risk.

Measles can be fatal, but this is rare. Between 2000 and 2022, 23 children and adults died as a result of measles or related infections.

Why are measles cases rising and where are outbreaks?

The number of young primary school children who have had the MMR vaccine – which is extremely effective against measles, mumps and rubella – is below World Health Organization targets.

That makes outbreaks of measles much more common.

Some 85% of children in 2022-23 had received two MMR doses by the time they were five years old, the lowest level since 2010-11. The goal is 95%.

The West Midlands, particularly Birmingham, have seen the most cases in recent months – more than 200.

There have also been smaller outbreaks in parts of London, where 74% of five-year-olds have had two doses. In a few areas, such as Hackney, nearly half of children are not fully vaccinated.

There are small clusters of cases in other areas of the country too.

There were 1,603 suspected cases of measles in England and Wales in 2023, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). That is up sharply from 735 cases in 2022 and 360 in 2021.

What are measles symptoms and what is the rash?

Common measles symptoms include;

high fever

sore, red and watery eyes



feeling generally unwell

Small white spots may appear inside the mouth.

A blotchy red or brown rash usually appears a few days after the initial symptoms, typically on the face and behind the ears before spreading to the rest of the body.

It can be harder to see on brown and black skin.

How is measles spread?

The virus is contained in tiny droplets which are released when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

You catch measles by breathing in the droplets, or touching them and placing your hand near your nose or mouth.

People with measles are infectious until at least four days after the rash appears.

Where can I get a vaccine?

The advice is to speak to your GP surgery to book jabs for your child, or if you think you have missed your own vaccinations.

Pop-up clinics are also being set up at some schools.

The first MMR dose is usually given at 12 months, and the second at about three years and four months, before children start school. It reduces the risk of someone becoming ill with measles and infecting others.

You can catch up on the jabs at any point whether you’re a child or an adult.

Muslim communities who do not eat pork products can request an alternative version called Priorix from their GP.

If the MMR vaccine is not suitable, a treatment called human normal immunoglobulin (HNIG) can be given to someone who is at immediate risk of catching measles.

What are the side effects of the MMR jab?

Most side effects are mild and do not last long.

The area where the needle goes in can be red, sore and swollen for a few days.

Babies and young children may develop a high temperature for up to 72 hours.

There is no evidence linking the MMR vaccine with autism.

Researcher Andrew Wakefield wrongly claimed the two were connected in 1998. His work was later dismissed, and Mr Wakefield was struck off by the General Medical Council in 2010.

At the time the claims were made, many parents chose not to have their children vaccinated. Those children are now young adults and being urged to get vaccinated.

What should you do if you get measles?

The NHS advises patients to:

take paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve fever, aches and pains – aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years old

rest and drink plenty of fluids

wash their hands regularly with soap, and clean their eyes with damp cotton wool

put used tissues and cotton wool in the bin

You should go to A&E or phone 999 if you or your child:

have shortness of breath

have a high temperature that does not come down with paracetamol or ibuprofen

are coughing up blood

feel drowsy or confused

have fits (convulsions)

Pregnant women or those with a weakened immune system should seek urgent medical advice after contact with someone with measles.