Figures released by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) show that the number of cases of measles in England and Wales in the first six months of 2012 has almost doubled from the same period of last year.

A total of 964 cases were reported during the six-month period compared to 497 in the first half of 2011, sparking calls for parents to ensure that their children are up-to-date with MMR vaccinations before they return to school, to help prevent the further spread of the disease.

The hike in cases was driven by outbreaks in West Sussex and Merseyside, which are still ongoing, as well as several smaller outbreaks in travelling communities in England, the HPA said.

There has also been a leap in the number of cases of Rubella, with an increase of 57 cases reported between January and June this year - overshooting the annual totals for each of the previous nine years, according to the Agency.

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.

However, it is thought that older children who did not receive the vaccine while uptake was low, and therefore remain unprotected, are contributing to the current spread of the disease.

"It’s extremely concerning that measles cases are continuing to rise. Measles can be very serious and parents should understand the risks associated with the infection, which in severe cases can result in death," warned Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the HPA.

“It’s vital that children receive both doses of the MMR vaccination and ahead of returning to school after the holidays, we are urging parents to ensure their children have received the two doses, which will provide the best protection against the risks associated with measles, mumps and rubella," she stressed.

'Falsified' MMR study

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 Lancet 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 the damage was done, and the effects of his 'research', which decreased uptake of the MMR vaccine and thereby put children at greater risk, are still apparent today.