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Cases of measles are on the rise again: What you can do to protect your family

As rates of the infectious disease grow, Liz Connor speaks with Dr Paul Shepherd about how to avoid it and what to do if your child does catch it

Measles is not only uncomfortable, itchy and rather unsightly, but the virus can sometimes be really dangerous too. Although most common in young children, measles can potentially affect anyone who has not been vaccinated against it.

While fatalities are thankfully rare, cases of measles have now reached the highest this decade, according to the World Health Organisation. More than 41,000 children and adults across Europe have been infected with measles in the first six months of 2018, and at least 37 have died.

So what do people - and particularly parents - need to know? We spoke to Dr Paul Shepherd, a GP with Push Doctor (www.pushdoctor.co.uk), to find out what you should do if you or a family member contracts the infectious virus this autumn...

What is measles?

Measles is an infectious disease caused by a virus and it's known as being quite unpleasant and severe.

"It used to be a common illness, especially in children, until the introduction of the measles vaccine, given as part of the MMR vaccine in infancy," says Shepherd.

"However, the MMR vaccine uptake reduced following the flawed research of the discredited Dr Andrew Wakefield [who proposed a link between the MMR jab and autism and bowel disease], and so we've seen increasing cases of measles in the UK, and more especially across Europe in recent years."

Parents should be particularly wary of measles, notes Shepherd, as it can lead to serious complications in childhood, including meningitis and pneumonia, sometimes with fatal consequences.

How do you catch measles?

Much like the common cold, measles is easily spread via tiny droplets that come out of the nose and mouth.

"It's usually transmitted from person to person by coughing, sneezing, or direct contact with body secretions," says Shepherd.

You can catch measles by breathing in these droplets, or touching a surface that the droplets have settled on and then placing your hands near your nose or mouth, as the virus can survive on surfaces for a few hours.

What are the obvious signs and symptoms?

If you've been around someone with measles, you might not know if you've caught the virus until two weeks later.

"Symptoms will usually start to develop in a person who has been exposed to and infected by the virus after between 10-14 days," says Shepherd.

"Early signs are fever, cough, cold symptoms and sore eyes due to conjunctivitis. You will often, at this stage, find spots inside the cheeks which are a white or grey colour, known as 'Koplik's spots'," he explains.

After a few days, the characteristic measles rash appears.

"Look out for a bright red rash, starting on the head and neck before spreading to the rest of the body."

Shepherd notes that the rash is often itchy and, after about four days, the colour of the rash turns a more dark red or brown colour.

How is it treated?

There are several things you can do to help relieve the unpleasant symptoms of measles, and reduce the risk of spreading the infection.

"The usual first aid measures will apply, giving paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve aches and pains and help lower temperature. It is also important to stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of water," says Shepherd.

It can also be helpful to close any curtains to reduce light sensitivity while you're getting over the worst of it. Most cases of measles will settle on their own over about 10-14 days, and once you have had measles, your body builds up resistance to the virus, so it's highly unlikely you'll get it again. That said, you should contact your GP as soon as possible, if you suspect that you or your child may have measles.

"As a result of catching measles, complications due to bacterial infection may arise, such as middle ear infection, pneumonia and meningitis.

"It is also very important that medical advice is sought quickly if there are any signs of complications arising," warns Shepherd. "Worrying features would include difficulty breathing, chest pain, coughing up blood, drowsiness, confusion or fits.

"In this situation, antibiotics will often be needed to treat the complicating bacterial infection and, in severe cases, hospitalisation is required."

What can you do to prevent catching measles?

Measles can be prevented by having the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. This is given in two doses, as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme in the UK. The first dose is given when your child is around 13 months old, and a second dose is given at three years and four months - but you could still get vaccinated later, if the childhood MMR is missed.

"The measles vaccine should have been given during childhood as part of MMR but the vaccine can be given at any age, if it has been missed," says Shepherd, who stresses that having an extra vaccination will not cause any harm. Vaccination against measles is vital, both to protect an individual person and also to develop a high level of immunity in the population, in order to prevent the virus spreading.

"There's also an injection that can be given in special circumstances called Human Normal Immunoglobulin, which is a concentration of antibodies against the measles virus," he adds. "This may be given within six days of known exposure to the measles virus to babies under six months, unvaccinated pregnant women, or people with weakened immune systems."

If you already have measles, then the best thing to do is wait out the unpleasant symptoms, and stay away from others where possible.

"You should avoid work or school for at least four days after the rash appears, so you can avoid passing it on to others," says Shepherd.

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