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Written Statement - The Measles Outbreak

Mark Drakeford, Minister for Health and Social Services

I wrote to Assembly Members, MPs, Council Leaders and Chairs of Health Boards on 26 March to provide an update on the outbreak. Since that time, measles cases continue to be reported across Wales, with the majority in Abertawe Bro Morgannwg, Powys and Hywel Dda Health Board areas. On 11 April, Public Health Wales reported 693 cases in the outbreak centred on the Swansea area.  With the number of cases still increasing daily, the Welsh Government remains concerned and is aware that this outbreak is yet to reach its peak. Indeed, we can fully expect cases to continue to occur for a number of weeks yet. The only way to halt the outbreak is to ensure as many people as possible have the MMR vaccine to protect themselves, their children, family members and others in the community who may not be protected for a variety of reasons. Increasing levels of immunisation through MMR vaccination will give the community protection from a potentially dangerous but very preventable disease.

The Welsh Government works through Public Health Wales and Health Boards. We are monitoring progress of the outbreak daily.  Actions in response to the outbreak have taken into consideration evidence-based approaches and lessons learned from previous measles outbreaks in Wales and elsewhere.  

We are actively working (along with the media) to raise public awareness of the importance of MMR vaccination and to reiterate the actions that people can take to help themselves and others. The Assembly will be aware of the current vaccination efforts in Primary Care and the community based immunisation clinics which have achieved considerable numbers of vaccinations, in particular those in the Swansea area and more recently in Cardiff. I should take this opportunity to reiterate my thanks for all the hard work undertaken so far which has given a unique opportunity to re-engage parents of older children who may not have received the vaccine previously.  

In order to build on this, recent media announcements have focused on the need for older, school age children who have missed vaccinations to come forward as well as the younger children. Public Health Wales has produced data for each Health Board area detailing MMR coverage and allowing Boards to identify which schools to target for any schools based immunisation programmes. All Health Boards across Wales are developing plans actively to vaccinate unprotected children and to provide rapid implementation of school based immunisation in response to cases and outbreaks.  

In the main outbreak area, Abertawe Bro Morgannwg Health Board is planning to start vaccination sessions in schools immediately after the Easter school holiday, initially targeting schools in the outbreak area with the lowest levels of vaccine protection.  Other Health Boards will also be offering school catch up clinics targeting schools with low vaccine uptake.

To boost MMR uptake in the outbreak area, special sessions have again been held over the weekend in four hospitals. Around 1,750 vaccinations were received.  This builds on the previous week’s sessions when over 1,700 vaccines were given.  It is encouraging that parents are continuing to bring their children forward but the numbers need to be higher to bring the outbreak under control.  

It is estimated that around 5,000 children still remain at risk from measles in the Swansea area alone. I anticipate therefore that the numbers of cases will continue to rise over the coming weeks until the levels of MMR vaccination coverage reach levels where the continuing circulation of measles in the community can be interrupted.  

It is important for us all to remember measles is not a trivial illness.  In a minority of cases, it can lead to serious complications and it can be fatal.  Regrettably, the more the disease continues to spread, the more likely these outcomes become. It is vital we build on the progress made so far and bring the outbreak under control.

The current measles outbreak in Wales is one of the largest in the UK for over a decade. It reinforces the Programme for Government’s commitment to increase MMR uptake.  The only way to prevent future outbreaks is to ensure that at least 95% of children in Wales have received two doses of the MMR vaccine. Recent MMR uptake rates for Wales continue to show a positive, upward trend.  The latest figures from Public Health Wales (COVER report Quarter 4, 2012) show for Wales as a whole, uptake of the first dose of MMR is now 94.3% at two years of age.  Uptake of the second dose at five years of age has also increased to 89.9%. Whilst more infants are having the vaccine now, efforts must be focused on those children who missed out for whatever reason in the past so that they are offered catch up vaccinations to provide maximum protection to the community as a whole.

The Welsh Government recognises the importance of immunisation in preventing disease. Included in the revised NHS Delivery Framework is the prevention measure “Immunisation – children under four years of age 95% target rate” which relates to all childhood vaccines delivered through national programmes, including MMR.  

The Welsh Government, Public Health Wales and the Health Boards will continue to take all necessary and appropriate measures to reduce the impact of the outbreak as far as possible. It is important that we all take every opportunity to reinforce the importance (and safety) of MMR vaccination. Finally I would like to take this opportunity to appeal to parents and encourage people to contact health professionals to get their child vaccinated, by doing so we can protect our children against this readily preventable illness.