In the news today, a 13-year-old boy has just died from measles. He had not been vaccinated and, predictably, the result is that parents are being urged to get vaccinations.

Any death, especially perhaps of a young person and especially when the death feels “close to home” as this one does, has the power to make us feel shocked and scared. But it is important to balance that with a degree of calm objectivity, and so it is worth bearing in mind a few points about the situation:

  • The boy was suffering from an underlying lung condition, and had been taking immuno-suppressive drugs. This background of poor health must have (I strongly suspect) contributed to his having died from what we know is ordinarily a fairly mild illness.
  • This was the first measles death in the UK since 1992, so the risks of dying from measles in the UK are very small indeed, even for someone in poor health. A person with a good diet and a robust immune system has only a miniscule chance of death from measles. Meanwhile, there is strong evidence – accepted by the manufacturers rather than “made up” by anti-vaxers – to suggest a risk of dying from vaccinations too. One, Two blog entries from a few weeks ago touch upon that.
  • This year is being described as a big measles year in the UK, with 100 cases so far, as opposed to 76 cases in the whole of 2005. All things are relative and, in the scheme of things, even 400 cases a year in a population of about 60m is pretty small.

Lest it be thought from the above that I am opposed to vaccines, I should perhaps clarify that I am not. Where they are needed, they save lives. The measles vaccine is saving lives all over the developing world and has only last month been credited with a massive 60% drop in African measles deaths.

However, I do want to suggest that one death in 14 years is not necessarily the best reason to rush out and vaccinate here in the UK. Here measles is a far less serious health threat, and so vaccination may not be a proportionate response to what is normally a low-risk illness.