Measles raises its head again in Europe after years of suppression: Report

According to a new report last Thursday, measles incidence is on the rise in Europe following decades of decline.

Up to October European health officials reported more than 26,000 measles cases this year and nine deaths. This is a threefold increase in cases from the same time period in 2007, said the World Health Organization. France accounted for about 14,000 cases, mainly in children older than five and in young adults. Other big outbreaks of the highly-contagious disease have been identified in Spain, Romania, Macedonia, and Uzbekistan. Altogether, measles outbreaks in Europe have caused nine deaths, including six in France, and 7,288 hospitalizations. The report was published Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We are seeing a surge of cases much larger than we've seen in the past five or six years,” said Rebecca Martin, immunization program manager for WHO's Europe office in Copenhagen. Measles cases had been dropping for years, but began to increase sharply in late 2009.

She added that the epidemic was fueled mainly by low vaccination rates and noted about half the cases were in people older than 15. “Over the years, people who haven't been vaccinated are now giving the virus a big opportunity to spread,” Martin said. The report added that vaccination rates in Europe were high, but still didn't meet the 95 percent target needed to stop outbreaks. Of the people who got measles, about half weren't vaccinated and the vaccination histories of many of the others were unknown.

The measles shot was tainted by now discredited research published by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 suggesting a possible link between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. Parents abandoned the vaccine in droves and suspicion about its safety still lingers, even though repeated studies have shown no connection.

“The increase in measles in European countries reveals a serious challenge to achieving the regional measles elimination goal by 2015,” Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe says. “Every country in the European Region must take the opportunity now to raise coverage amongst susceptible populations, improve surveillance and severely reduce measles virus circulation before the approaching measles high season…A substantial commitment is needed and should involve all stakeholders, especially health professionals who have a decisive role to play in helping parents make informative decisions regarding vaccination,” he said.

Jean-Yves Grall, the Director-General for Health in France, said, “France can simply not afford to have deaths, painful and costly hospitalizations, disruptions to work and school from a completely vaccine-preventable disease.”

Apart from Europe other countries were affected too. The U.S. has 205 cases this year — the most in a decade — and virtually all are linked to other regions, including 20 cases from Europe. The U.S. normally only has about 50 cases a year. Because North America has so little measles, every imported case requires a thorough investigation and response costing tens of thousands of dollars, Martin said.

Measles is highly contagious and up to 90 percent of people exposed to an infected person get sick, experts say. The virus spreads easily through the air, and in closed rooms, infected droplets can linger for up to two hours after the sick person leaves. It causes a fever, runny nose, cough and a rash all over the body. The disease kills about one to two children for every 1,000 it infects, and can also cause pregnant women to have a miscarriage or premature birth.

A spokeswoman for the Health Protection Agency, which covers England and Wales, said, “Anyone who missed out on MMR as a child will continue to be at risk of measles, which explains why we are continuing to see cases in a broad age range…We are again reminding parents and young adults of the importance of immunization. We cannot stress enough that measles is serious and in some cases it can be fatal. Measles is a highly infectious and potentially dangerous illness which spreads very easily. Whether you stay here in the UK or travel abroad it is crucial that individuals who may be at risk are fully immunized.”

“It's a dangerous decision not to get vaccinated,” Martin said. “One death is too many when we have an effective vaccine.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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