The number of confirmed measles cases in the West Cork outbreak has risen to 31, with fears that younger children are now at risk.
Public health experts said they expect the figure to rise over the coming days.
Dr Fiona Ryan, a specialist in public health medicine in the HSE South, said concerns are mounting that the infectious disease, which in this outbreak is mainly affecting unvaccinated teenagers under 18, could spread to younger children.
Since the outbreak was confirmed on Monday with 25 cases, two new cases have been confirmed in primary school children.
“We have historically had a problem in the West Cork area with a large number of parents declining vaccinations,” Dr Ryan said.
“You then end up with a large number of children who are not immune and if measles is introduced into such a community, it allows the spread.”
According to figures from the last quarter of 2011, the national uptake for the MMR vaccine in children aged 24 months was 92% — a figure that rises to 93% in the HSE South region.
But in the West Cork area, the uptake at 24 months was just 86%. For the same time period, Kerry reported an MMR uptake of 92% for children at 24 months.
Any area or community with low MMR coverage is at particular risk of measles outbreaks within that community.
The last very large national measles outbreak occurred in 2000, when over 1,600 cases were reported and there were three measles-associated deaths.
The last large outbreak in West Cork occurred in 2009/10, when 68 cases were reported.
In 2011, a total of six cases were reported in HSE South, with no cases reported in West Cork.
But Dr Ryan said that, since this outbreak was confirmed, there has been anecdotal evidence from GPs in West Cork that parents are now bringing their unvaccinated children to doctors’ surgeries to get the MMR vaccine.
“We are liaising with public health nurses and GPs in West Cork,” said Dr Ryan. “And we are taking calls from parents seeking information, and contacting the parents of the cases notified to us offering them advice on what they need to do.
“We are trying to do everything we can to control this outbreak.
“But the vaccine is there and it’s free. We would urge people to avail of it.”
Most of the cases reported in this latest outbreak were among students who are attending Schull Community College.
The HSE advised parents to withdraw unvaccinated children from the school — especially those children in exam classes.
The highly contagious disease can lead to serious complications: pneumonia, otitis (a middle ear infection), diarrhoea, and neurological problems.
In 2011, more than 30,000 people contracted measles in Europe.
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