The surge in infections has sparked a renewed urgency to address vaccination gaps. Wikimedia Commons

The United Kingdom is currently grappling with a sharp rise in measles cases, prompting health authorities to launch extensive measures to curb the outbreak.

The surge in infections has sparked a renewed urgency to address vaccination gaps and enhance public awareness about the importance of immunisation.

In September 2017, Britain was revelling in the triumph of a public health achievement. There had been no recorded indigenous cases of measles for three consecutive years.

Dr Mary Ramsay, who was the head of immunisation at Public Health England (PHE) at the time, expressed her joy.

"This is a significant accomplishment and a recognition of the dedicated efforts of our health professionals in the NHS to ensure that all children and adults receive full protection with two doses of the MMR vaccine," she said.

However, the WHO accolade was accompanied by a cautionary note. Zsuzsanna Jakab, then the WHO regional director for Europe, issued a warning. "We cannot afford to be complacent," she emphasised.

"Outbreaks continue to inflict unnecessary suffering and loss of life. Routine immunisation coverage is on the decline."

In under two years, the UK saw the removal of its measles-free status.

Presently, the nation finds itself in the throes of a measles emergency, prompting swift actions by public health officials.

Over the past few months, the UK has witnessed a significant increase in measles cases, marking a stark departure from the progress made in controlling the highly contagious disease in recent years.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which took over from PHE during the COVID-19 pandemic, has declared a national incident, highlighting a significant public health threat posed by one of the world's most contagious viruses.

Recent weeks have seen a surge in measles cases among hundreds of children, prompting concerns that a burgeoning outbreak in the West Midlands could extend its reach to other communities without immediate intervention to bolster vaccination rates.

Officials estimate that a staggering 3.4 million individuals under the age of 16 are at risk of contracting the virus, leading to the dispatch of letters to parents of unvaccinated children.

General practitioners are establishing additional clinics, and vaccine buses are targeting areas with low vaccination rates.

"We're at a point where there's a very large susceptible population of children," warned Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

"To keep measles at bay, we need to have over 95 per cent of children vaccinated. The NHS figures suggest that we're at about 85 per cent."

Data from the UKHSA revealed 216 confirmed measles cases and 103 probable cases in the West Midlands since October 1 of the previous year.

The majority (80 per cent) were concentrated in Birmingham, with an additional 10 per cent identified in Coventry. Most of the cases were observed in children under the age of 10.

"Now that it's got started, with a virus that is so infectious – it's much more infectious than COVID was – then if there are people who are unvaccinated, it can spread like wildfire," cautioned Pollard.

"The reason why that's so worrying is that it then finds individuals who rather than just getting a horrible illness, will actually get serious complications or die from it."

Health officials are now working tirelessly to identify the sources of the outbreak, while simultaneously urging the public to take preventive measures, including vaccination.

Public health experts attribute the surge to a combination of factors, including lower vaccination rates, misinformation about vaccine safety and disruptions in routine immunisation programs.

The decline in vaccination rates and the loss of the UK's measles-free status are, in part, attributed to a lack of awareness or forgetfulness regarding the risks associated with measles.

Dr David Elliman, a paediatrician at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital, highlighted this issue, stating: "Due to the success of the UK immunisation programme, many parents will have no first-hand experience of measles.

"It would be a significant tragedy if we have to learn from the unfortunate deaths of children before the disease is given the attention it deserves."

The collaborative efforts of the government, healthcare providers and communities are crucial in tackling this public health challenge and preventing further spread of the highly contagious disease.