London’s measles timebomb: Why experts fear 200 may die in outbreak
Autism misinformation in the 2000s is now coming back to haunt the capital
Morning — seemingly out of nowhere last week, the UK’s Health Security Agency warned that London could soon see an outbreak of up to 160,000 measles cases. The numbers are quite mindboggling — 115,000 of these cases would just be among 18- to 24-year-old Londoners, many of whom aren’t fully vaccinated. And an expert has now told the Spy such a resurgence could result in 200 deaths. That’s after your Sunday briefing below.
Plus: Khan surrounded on all sides, a new skyscraper approved, and Taylor Swift’s favourite kebab shop.
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What we’ve spied
🚗 Sadiq Khan cuts a lonely political figure right now, as people on both the right and left blame the Conservatives’ win in the Uxbridge by-election on his plans to expand London’s ultra-low emission zone. Labour was widely expected to win the former west London seat of Boris Johnson, but ended up losing it by just 495 votes. Labour leader Keir Starmer’s reaction was: “ULEZ was the reason we didn’t win there yesterday. We know that. We heard that on the doors. And we’ve all got to reflect on that, including the mayor”. The party’s deputy leader Angela Rayner also weighed in, saying “there is no getting away from” the fact that the air pollution charge on cars was “the major issue”. Khan has doubled down and for now seems to be refusing to waver on his plans: “we are determined to clear the air in London”. But the result has hammered home just how politically potent the issue has become, and expect Conservatives to continue banging the anti-ULEZ drum in London and beyond.
📣 Anyway, it’s best to keep busy in moments like this — so Khan launched a swish PR campaign encouraging men in London to call out sexism. The mayor dropped a series of videos as results came in from Uxbridge on Friday that call on men to “say maaate to a mate”. In other words, to challenge misogynistic behaviour if they see it coming from friends. One of the scenarios depicted in the campaign is a guy saying he wants to slap a girl who ghosted him and his friends then calling him out. “Maaate,” Khan says, “is a single word to stop misogynistic language in its tracks” for when your friends go too far. The idea apparently comes from polling which found that two-thirds of men want to intervene when they hear misogynistic language but don’t know what to say. Khan’s even had “maaate” beamed onto a billboard in Piccadilly Circus.
🚴♂️ One last mayoral story: the Guardian has pointed out that there’s something quite strange about the new Conservative candidate’s obsession with tearing into cyclists. Susan Hall, who was selected as the party’s candidate for London mayor earlier this week, has described cyclists as ‘lawless’ and ‘dangerous’, raised the idea of mandatory cyclist registration and claimed bike lanes cause congestion. Author Peter Walker says all this makes her an outlier in Europe, where other big cities are getting on with building major cycling infrastructure and where this kind of hostility to cyclists is apparently very rare.
🛒 Rent-free shops are being offered to small businesses on Oxford Street in an effort to fight back against the bizarre proliferation of American candy stores. The £10m scheme run by Westminster council will offer support to 35 brands including a 70% reduction in business rates and a fit-out of stores. It’ll all take place in the premises of former American candy stores, which have become mixed up in all sorts of strange allegations from money laundering to the sale of illegal goods. Related: new plans have been unveiled for a £90m facelift for Oxford Street. Plans include more seating, more green areas, 12 more pedestrian crossings and a redesign of some of the junctions adjoining the street to create more space for pedestrians. A consultation is underway and will be open until August 31. And one last thing: the boss of M&S is apparently livid that the government this week blocked the company’s plans to demolish and rebuild its Oxford Street store.
🚇 Tube strikes planned for next week have been called off. The strikes would have stopped the tube entirely for four days and caused widespread disruption from Monday to Saturday, but have been cancelled owing to “significant progress” in talks. Mick Lynch says it’s not the end of the dispute and a strike mandate is still in place as negotiations continue.
🔪 Someone thinks they’ve figured out the identity of Jack the Ripper. Sarah Bax Horton, a retired civil servant and relative of an officer in the original investigation, claims to have pinpointed the man behind the 19th-century east London killings: Hyam Hyams, a cigar maker living in the area who knew how to use a knife. Crucially, Horton has unearthed evidence that matches Hyams with the description of a man with an irregular gait and stiff arm that was seen with female victims before they were stabbed to death — Hyams suffered a medical injury that gave him both of the above. Hyams also suffered from severe epilepsy, and Horton speculates his physical and mental decline triggered him to kill. In fact, Hyams was eventually committed to an asylum in 1889 — and Jack the Ripper never struck again after that point.
🏗️ A new 63-storey skyscraper has been approved by planners in the City of London. The 285m (935ft) glass tower at 55 Bishopsgate, close to the Gherkin, is set to be the third-largest skyscraper in the City. It’s expected to be completed by 2029.
🍕 Lots of foodies have been riled up by a Michelin star chef’s claim Pizza Express makes the best pizza in London. Marcus Wareing, a judge on MasterChef, has told a TikToker the restaurant chain has been his favourite in the capital for years, with his dish of choice being American Hot (pepperoni and chilli peppers). Fans of Homeslice, Franco Manca, Yard Sale and so on — and not to mention all the independent joints — have come out of the woodwork to disagree vehemently with Wareing.
🥙 A north London kebab shop is cashing in on Taylor Swift mania by coining the ‘Swift Kebab’. Kentish Delight of Kentish Town is apparently Taylor Swift’s favourite kebab shop, and has featured in one of her music videos. The shop, which proudly displays a poster showing Taylor inside on multiple different occasions, has seen a flurry of interest from Swifties of late.
Why experts fear a deadly measles outbreak in London
Measles may soon kill as many as 200 Londoners, most of them young children, a leading public health expert has told the Spy.
Upwards of 14 per cent of young adults in London could also soon catch the disease, Spy analysis of official projections show.
Last week the UK Health Security Agency warned London is at risk of a measles resurgence, amid concern about a steady rise in cases over the past year and consistently low vaccination rates in the capital.
The agency’s modelling suggests London could see an outbreak of between 40,000 and 160,000 cases unless vaccination rates improve.
“If that was the case there would be between 40 and 200 deaths, mostly in children under five,” said Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, in conversation with the Spy.
Professor Hunter’s figures are based on a fatality rate of around one in 1,000 cases.
Measles is a highly contagious disease that begins with cold-like symptoms before a rash develops all over the body. It can lead to fatal problems like pneumonia and meningitis.
Children are recommended to get two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination for protection for life — the first by the age of two, and the second by the age of five.
The World Health Organisation says 95% should be fully vaccinated to ensure herd immunity and stop the spread of the disease.
But uptake of two jabs at five years now stands at 75% in London, well below the WHO’s target and also below the England-wide figure of 85%.
In Hackney, the two-jab vaccination rate is just 56% at five years — the lowest of all London boroughs and all English local authorities.
One in three five-year-olds are not fully vaccinated in Kensington and Chelsea, Camden, Enfield, Haringey and Islington.
“We have known for some time that the measles immunisation rate in London is too low and that was before Covid. Vaccine uptake seems to have gotten worse,” explained Hunter.
Londoners aged between 18 to 24 are of particular concern now — the so-called ‘Wakefield cohort’. Many lack full vaccination due to misinformation in the early 2000s linking vaccines to autism following a debunked study by disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield.
Only 54% of Londoners born between 2000 to 2001 are fully vaccinated, compared to 78% of Londoners born between 2012 to 2013.
That lack of protection means that under its worst-case scenario, the UKHSA projected there could be 115,000 measles cases just among 18 to 24-year-olds in London — equivalent to 14% of that age group.
2000s autism fears appear to have had a particular foothold in London — in contrast to London’s 54% figure, 73% of people in England born between 2000 to 2001 are fully vaccinated.
The UKHSA’s scenario would also see thousands of children under five in London catch measles — a particularly vulnerable group.
“Measles also can cause lasting disability,” said Hunter, “and there is a dreadful condition called sub-acute sclerosing pan-encephalitis which develops a decade or so after a measles infection (so teenagers and young adults).
“That occurs following about one in 100,000 infections. Here the child suffers a gradual loss of brain function until they die. So we may expect to see one of two SSPE cases [in London] in 10 to 20 years' time.”
So far measles cases in London are below the UKHSA’s modelled scenario, with 85 detected in the capital between January and June of this year.
But that compares to 54 across the whole of the UK last year, and London is now accounting for 66% of all UK cases.
Concern at vaccine hesitancy in London ratcheted up last year when polio was detected in the city’s sewage.
Between February and June 2022, multiple samples of the disease were detected at London Beckton Sewage Treatment Works, which serves around 4m people in the north and east of London.
Surveillance was stepped up and in total 135 samples of polio were detected across the capital by February and November of last year.
Polio, which causes paralysis, is also vaccinated against by the NHS in children, but again experts fear vaccine-hesitancy combined with overseas travel is allowing cases to crop up in London.
Since then health authorities have been encouraging Londoners to check their vaccination status and ensure they have full protection.
In May NHS London announced it was offering both polio and MMR vaccinations through primary schools in an effort to increase uptake.
But Hunter says improving vaccination rates in London is an immense challenge.
“The person who comes up with the answer for that would deserve a Nobel prize,” he said.
“I think one of the important things is to increase efforts in ethnic minority populations where vaccine uptake is often lower.
“Special vaccine clinics, going into communities, going door to door to encourage people to have their children vaccinated.”
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