The rate of measles has hit its highest number in the UK for nearly two decades, according to the Health Protection Agency.

There were 2,016 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales reported to the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in 2012, which is the highest annual total since 1994.

The measles cases identified during 2012 have been associated with prolonged outbreaks in Merseyside and Sussex, as well as several smaller outbreaks in travelling communities across England and Wales.

In response to the increase in the number of measles cases reported among members of the gypsy and traveller communities, the HPA sent out information about the MMR vaccination in August last year.

This was designed to help NHS staff and others who work with travellers explain the risks of measles, the signs and symptoms to look out for and the importance of MMR vaccination.

The UK along with France, Italy, Spain and Romania accounted for 87% of the total 7,392 measles cases reported throughout the European Union countries up to the end of November.

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the HPA, said: “Coverage of MMR is now at historically high levels but measles is highly infectious and can spread easily among communities that are poorly vaccinated, and can affect anyone who is susceptible, including toddlers in whom vaccination has been delayed. Older children who were not vaccinated at the routine age, who may now be teenagers, are at particular risk of becoming exposed, while at school for example.”

Dr Ramsay said that measles is often associated with being “a disease of the past” and as a result, people may be unaware that it is a dangerous infection that can lead to death in severe cases.

She said that parents should ensure that their children are fully protected against measles, mumps and rubella buy having two doses of the MMR vaccine.

The rise in these diseases comes despite a dramatic increase in uptake of the MMR vaccine from 2002, when coverage was less than 80%, with 93% of eligible children in England now getting the first dose and 87% the second dose, and 95% and 88%, respectively, in Wales.

MMR vaccine scare

In 1998 researcher Andrew Wakefield sparked a major health scare with his Lancet-published paper linking the MMR vaccine to a syndrome characterised by autism and bowel disease.

In 2010, the journal retracted the study following an investigation by the General Medical Council which revealed that several elements of the paper were incorrect, and in 2011 a report by the British Medical Journal concluded that it was actually based on falsified data.

But this had a major effect on vaccination rates and saw an increase in measles mumps and rubella, as many parents in the UK were worried it could harm their children.