Healthcare Workers at Risk: Gaps in Measles Immunity Exposed

Legacy of vaccine hesitancy may be leaving workers, particularly those born after 1998, vulnerable to measles infection and spread

Four nurses walking along a corridor in a hospital

One in five UK healthcare workers may not be fully immunised against measles, new research has found.

In a letter published in The Lancet, a team of immunology experts led by Professor Alex Richter at the University of Birmingham examined measles immunity in two groups of healthcare workers (HCWs).

The findings revealed that among a cohort of more than 400 HCWs, 13% of participants lacked measles antibodies, with a further 7.5% had borderline antibody status. Birth year was the major factor that determined immune status. Unusually for immunity, the younger the HCW the more likely they were to have a negative antibody result. This was confirmed in a second older HCW cohort from across the UK.

Our new research highlights a concerning gap in measles immunity among healthcare workers, who may unwittingly be putting themselves and vulnerable populations at avoidable risk.

Alex Richter, lead author of the paper

The researchers suggest that the likely cause for this is that they were not vaccinated as there has been so few measles infections over the last 20 years until recently, and so they were unlikely to have acquired immunity through infection. Erroneous concerns about MMR vaccine safety that emerged in 1998 compromised vaccine uptake in those born after 1998.

Alex Richter, Professor and Honorary Consultant in Clinical Immunology at the University of Birmingham and lead author of the letter published in the Lancet said:

“Measles cases are currently at high levels across the country. Our new research highlights a concerning gap in measles immunity among healthcare workers, who may unwittingly be putting themselves and vulnerable populations at avoidable risk.

“Healthcare workers in patient-facing roles, especially those working with children and immune-compromised individuals, are at risk of contracting and spreading measles if they are not fully immune to measles.”

Dr Antonia Ho, Clinical Senior Lecturer and Consultant in Infectious Diseases at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research and first author, said:

“Health care workers should check their vaccine history if they are uncertain and offered vaccination.

“Vaccination remains the most effective method of controlling measles. Therefore, every effort should be made to support health care workers, who are on the front lines of patient care, to ensure they are protected against measles to safeguard themselves and their patients.”

Notes for editors

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  • The University of Birmingham is a founding member of Birmingham Health Partners (BHP), a strategic alliance which transcends organisational boundaries to rapidly translate healthcare research findings into new diagnostics, drugs and devices for patients. Birmingham Health Partners is a strategic alliance between seven organisations who collaborate to bring healthcare innovations through to clinical application:
    • University of Birmingham
    • University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust
    • Birmingham Women's and Children's Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
    • Aston University
    • The Royal Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
    • Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust
    • West Midlands Academic Health Science Network
    • Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust