During one of my recent TV interviews about the current measles outbreak in Wales, the presenter was shocked that GPs misdiagnose measles as a viral infection. This is not shocking at all for two reasons. Firstly, measles is a viral infection that initially looks like other standard viruses all our children get. Secondly, the younger generation of GPs such as myself thankfully haven’t seen much measles due to our successful vaccination programme so it’s not at the forefront of our minds.
In 1998 before the disastrous Lancet MMR paper was published, there were 56 cases in total in the UK. In Wales alone, there have already been 600 cases since the outbreak began this year.
For everyone in the UK it is important to know how to spot a case of measles as parents and GPs need to be vigilant at the moment.
As with other viral infections, children have a high temperature, runny nose, diarrhoea and a cough. Conjunctivitis — sore red eyes — and feeling miserable are also very typical of measles. After three days of being ill the typical measles rash develops, which is red and blotchy. It starts behind the ears, spreading down the head and neck onto the body. It normally covers the whole body and turns brownish in colour after a couple of days.
There is no specific treatment for measles: like other viral infections it is necessary to rest and let your immune system fight it itself. The reason we vaccinate is because there are some rather nasty complications of measles that happens to some children, and we can’t always predict who. One in 5,000 people who get measles will develop encephalitis — a brain inflammation which can cause brain damage.
If your children are at risk because they were not vaccinated, you can get them immunised at your local surgery or paediatrician. Having the recommended two doses of MMR is the best way to protect your children against measles, although one cannot say that immunisation is 100 per cent effective. One dose is thought to protect over 90 per cent of children. The idea of giving the second is to catch those who didn’t get immunity from the first dose.
The medical establishment and the media made a big mistake with the MMR scandal in the late 1990s and, sadly, we are still seeing the after-effects.