Being ‘measles free’ doesn’t mean there are no cases of measles

Published: 20th Aug 2019

In brief

Claim

The UK has lost its measles free status just three years after the virus was eliminated.

Conclusion

The World Health Organisation no longer judges measles to have been eliminated in the UK – but that doesn’t mean there was ever a year when there were no cases of the disease.

“The UK has lost its ‘measles-free’ status with the World Health Organisation (WHO) – three years after the virus was eliminated in the country.”

Department of Health and Social Care, 18 August 2019

A number of media outlets yesterday led with the story that the UK has lost its ‘measles free’ status from the World Health Organisation (WHO) due to increased cases of the disease.

Number 10 also announced yesterday that urgent action is going to be taken to boost vaccination uptake in the UK.

Many of the articles mentioned that the measles virus was eliminated in the UK three years ago. This seems to have come directly from the announcement published by the Department of Health and Social Care, which says the same thing.

In 2017, the WHO announced that the UK, along with a number of other countries, had eliminated measles as of 2016.

The word 'eliminated' might make it sound like there were no cases of measles that year, but that's not what it means—the way the WHO uses it has a technical meaning that's a bit different to what you might expect. At the time the WHO said “Elimination of measles or rubella can be verified once a country has sustained interruption of endemic transmission for at least 36 months.”

According to Public Health England: “WHO defines measles elimination as the absence of circulating measles, in the presence of high vaccine coverage, along with good systems to identify cases of the disease.

“In countries that have eliminated measles, measles can still occur, but these will be isolated cases that only have limited spread within the community.”

There were around 300 confirmed cases in 2017 and around 600 in 2016 across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Vaccine Knowledge Project at the University of Oxford has previously said that: “The majority of measles cases have been in people who are not vaccinated, especially young people aged 15 and over who missed out on MMR vaccination when they were younger.

“About 30% of those infected have been admitted to hospital. At the moment most UK measles cases are linked to travel in Europe.

“Measles cases have also been linked to music festivals and other large public events.”

In 2018 there were almost 1,000 cases of measles confirmed across the UK.

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