Measles outbreak in Swansea a warning

Nick Morris says the current spread of disease across Wales makes the case for MMR vaccination

The MMR measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is back in the headlines. Public Health Wales reported more than 588 cases of measles in the Swansea area as of the end of last week and appealed again for people to be immunised. There are also signs that in Powys the number of measles cases has doubled in a week.

This is obviously worrying news. It shows there remains a significant group of people in Wales who have missed out on the vaccine. Because it is the only way to prevent measles, mumps and rubella – commonly known as German measles – unvaccinated people are vulnerable. They are at risk both from the viruses themselves and from the complications that can result from them.

Peggy Freeman, who founded the Rubella Group in 1955 caught rubella when she was pregnant. As a result her child was born blind and deaf and with heart problems. As she said: “It is difficult to believe that a minute virus, so small it can only be seen with a microscope of great magnitude, could cause impairments to the vision and hearing of a child even before it is born.”

The Rubella Group evolved into Sense, the charity for deafblind people which campaigns in favour of the MMR vaccine. We were founded by parents like Peggy Freeman whose children and families were affected by congenital rubella syndrome, which was one of the causes of deafblindness. Since then Sense has been campaigning with and supporting deafblind people and their families as they deal with the consequences of deafblindness.

Children born with congenital deafblindness face a tough start. Finding ways to communicate, learn and explore can be difficult and they have to learn to use their remaining senses, such as touch, balance, and smell as well as what residual sight and/or hearing they possess. Their perception of the world is different compared with that of their hearing and sighted peers. They may also have to deal with other physical and learning disabilities. It means they need intensive support from their parents and trained professionals and teachers.

Many of the present causes of congenital deafblindness are still unavoidable. However, rubella is avoidable through the MMR vaccine and has resulted in the near elimination of the congenital rubella syndrome. Yet, the Swansea outbreak should serve as a reminder that we cannot take for granted that all people have been vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella.

There are certainly unvaccinated young people in Wales approaching adulthood. Women will be at risk if they have not had the vaccination and become pregnant. Whatever the reasons for missing out it is critical they are protected now. Cases of rubella circulating in communities remain rare. According to Public Health Wales statistics only nine cases of rubella were confirmed in Wales between 2000 and 2010. However, the figures from 1996 provide a salutary lesson. The disease will circulate if there are enough unvaccinated people and babies will be born deafblind as a result. A number of young adults living in 1996 were unvaccinated because they had missed out on MMR when it was introduced in 1988 and boys would not have received a rubella vaccine before then. There was an outbreak of rubella in parts of the UK and in Wales 355 cases were confirmed. Across the UK there were 12 babies born with congenital rubella syndrome as a result of the outbreak, according the National Congenital Rubella Surveillance Programme.

The outbreak also offers an opportunity for the Welsh Government to ensure that every generation acts on the knowledge that the MMR vaccine is not only safe but the only way to prevent measles, mumps and rubella. Only then can MMR disappear from the headlines again and the people of Wales can rest easily that they are protected from these viruses. If you are in doubt about whether you have had the vaccine, you should contact your GP immediately.

Nick Morris is joint policy and campaigns officer for Sense Cymru and RNIB Cymru. For more information about rubella visit the Sense website

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