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Measles outbreak fuels epidemic fear

GP fears of a measles epidemic have been heightened following an outbreak in an area with one of the highest MMR uptake rates in the UK.

Ten confirmed cases of measles in Crawley, West Sussex, have put practices throughout the county on alert as public health experts questioned whether GPs could cope.

Crawley's latest MMR uptake figures, for the final quarter of last year, were 88-90 per cent in two-year-olds. MMR uptake across the UK plunged to its lowest ever level of 81 per cent during that period.

The Health Protection Agency, formerly the Public Health Laboratory Service, said any area with less than 95 per cent uptake at 24 months was at risk of an outbreak. Uptake is currently below 90 per cent in all eight English regions as well as Northern Ireland and Wales.

GPs in West Sussex were told to expect calls from worried parents and a surge in demand for MMR vaccine.

Dr Howard Eastcott, consultant in communicable disease control for the Health Protection Service in Sussex, said the measles outbreak was the first he had seen for nine years. He expected to see further 'pockets' of cases throughout the county.

The first reported case was of a child returning from Africa who passed the disease to her unvaccinated siblings.

Dr Eastcott said: 'It's just one of those things. In terms of overall susceptibility in the county there are 30,000-plus but most of these are dispersed throughout older age groups.

'If there are many more cases the question is will GPs be able to cope in and among the other work they have to do.'

Dr Alison Smith, chair of West Sussex PCT's professional executive committee and a GP in Shoreham-by-Sea, practises just three miles from the outbreak and said some of the children required hospital attention.

She said the PCT had set up workshops to update GPs and health visitors on the latest evidence of MMR safety.

Dr Smith said the measles outbreak had taken GPs by surprise because MMR uptake in the area was high.

'It is not just children at risk but adults too. I'm just hoping and praying that we don't get a child who dies or develops measles encephalitis.'

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