A recent outbreak of measles in West Sussex has reignited the debate about the triple MMR jab and its possible link to autism. Siobhan Ryan reports

Ten children from across West Sussex are recovering from an outbreak of measles.

Four of the cases were so severe the children had to be treated in hospital.

Health bosses are now urging parents to get their child immunised as quickly as possible to try and prevent an increase in the number of children getting infected.

Most cases have been found in the Adur, Arun and Worthing Primary Care Trust (PCT) area, although there have been two cases in Crawley.

The PCT has an MMR take-up rate of 88 per cent. It needs to rise to at least 95 per cent to stop any new cases.

Take-up rates have been badly affected by long-running claims the MMR jab has a direct link to autism. But health officials insist there is no proven link between the two.

However, such concerns mean many parents have refused to let their children have the injection and have called for single-dose injections against measles, mumps and rubella to be provided instead.

Having a number of children in an area who are not protected against the disease increases the risk of a widespread outbreak.

GP Alison Smith said: "Measles can be extremely serious and all health professionals within our area advocate the triple MMR vaccine.

"Health visitors have an extensive information pack they give parents and are always happy to discuss any concerns parents may have.

"If anyone has a child who has not been immunised or if they themselves are at risk, they should contact their health visitor or GP surgery where they will be immunised as quickly as possible."

Farhang Tahzib, the PCT's director of public health, said: "MMR is one of the safest and most effective medical products available to the NHS.

"If this were not the case, we would not have persisted with it in the face of the significant levels of parental concern which have been expressed over the past five years."

Measles is a highly infectious illness spread primarily by droplets from coughs and sneezes. The incubation period is usually between seven and 18 days.

It starts with a fever, runny eyes and nose and cough. A red, spotty rash develops after three or four days of illness.

After three or four days, the rash may become brownish and then fades as the fever falls.

During the illness, children tend to be very miserable with loss of appetite.

Children under one and those whose immune system is low because of treatments for conditions such as cancer are at the greatest risk, along with women who are pregnant and not immune.

Immunisation with MMR, if given with 72 hours of exposure, can prevent or reduce the severity of a measles infection.

Ordinarily, children under 13 months are not offered MMR vaccine as the immunisation may not be completely effective because of blood proteins derived from the mother during pregnancy.

However, if a child is judged to be at particular risk of exposure, the vaccine can be given.

If a child gets measles it is important to keep them away from unimmunised children, particularly those with the greatest vulnerability. Parents worried about the possibility of measles should not take their children into A&E departments.

A&E departments, hospital paediatric wards and GP surgeries have been identified in recent studies as the key places where transmission of illness in the community takes place.

Measles is extremely infectious. In an unimmunised population, each new case will generate, on average, a further 20 cases.

Direct person-to-person contact is not needed. It is enough to breathe the droplet-laden air where someone with measles has recently been.

Where cases occur in the school or a childcare setting, unimmunised children should not attend and should only be allowed back in school when vaccinated or when the risk of getting the illness has receded.

This is three weeks after the last documentated case if a child remains unimmunised or ten days after documented immunisation.

For more details, call the NHS Direct information line on 0845 4647.