Children hardest hit in new measles outbreak
CHILDREN under five have been the main victims of a measles outbreak sweeping the country, which has hospitalised one in three of those affected.
There has been a 43-fold increase in the number of recorded cases in the first six weeks of this year, when compared with the same period in 2009.
Two sufferers of the highly infectious disease, which can cause severe illness and, occasionally, death, have required intensive care treatment.
Children and teenagers have taken the biggest hit and, unusually, there has also been a small number of cases in the over-30 age group.
Now schools and colleges have been advised to be on the alert for symptoms in both pupils and staff.
Schools have been told to warn parents and staff about the outbreak and that non-immune children and staff are at risk and can also put others at risk.
So far this year, 173 cases have been reported, compared with just four in the same period in 2009.
Health officials fear that if its spread is not halted it could reach the level seen in 2000, which resulted in more than 1,600 cases and three deaths. The other big outbreak in recent years was in 2004, when 330 cases were recorded.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) has been monitoring the situation closely and has asked the Department of Education to put schools on alert. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) said the MMR vaccination was the only way to prevent a measles infection and urged parents to make sure that children were given that protection.
The current outbreak originally took hold in Cork and Kerry and was initially concentrated in Traveller families. However, it has now spread into the wider community.
The HPSC said there were "real concerns" about it spreading among people who had not been vaccinated or who were under-vaccinated.
Doctors recommend two doses of the vaccine, the first usually given at 12 months of age by GPs and the second in school at four to five years of age. However, the vaccine can be received at any time.
The HPSC said they did not know the extent of vaccination coverage in the population but in the most recent survey, 91pc of children then aged 24 months had been vaccinated, a higher proportion than in previous surveys of children of that age.
Health chiefs said that anyone who was not sure about their vaccination status should get another dose, which would not do them any harm, and would also protect against mumps and rubella.
Dr Suzanne Cotter of the HPSC said the first dose would protect 95pc of children "and if all those children who missed it now go and get a vaccination, we could nip it in the bud".
She said there was real concern about the east of the country where, although there had not been a huge number of cases to date, the vaccination uptake in some areas was relatively low.