Measles is experiencing a serious comeback in Europe, according to warnings from the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Tuesday.
Already, the total number of cases from 2018 “far exceeds” the totals reported for all 12 months of every other year this decade, warned WHO.
And it’s because countries aren’t being vigilant enough when it comes to vaccination rates.
“We are seeing a dramatic increase in infections and extended outbreaks,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe.
“We call on all countries to immediately implement broad, context-appropriate measures to stop further spread of this disease,” she added. “Good health for all starts with immunisation, and as long as this disease is not eliminated we are failing to live up to our Sustainable Development Goal commitments.”
More than 41,000 cases of measles were reported in the European region between January and June, according to an announcement from WHO.
In 2017, in comparison, there were fewer than 24,000 cases — and that was already the highest count in any year from the past decade. It followed a record low number of cases in 2016, when there were just 5,273 cases reported across Europe.
Ukraine has been the worst hit this year — with 23,000 cases in total, more than half of those reported across the whole of Europe.
Meanwhile, measles-related deaths have been reported in France, Georgia, Italy, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine — with all seven of those countries each reporting over 1,000 infections so far this year. There were 37 deaths in total in the first six months of 2018 — with 14 deaths in Serbia alone.
Throughout the whole of 2017, in comparison, there were 38 deaths in total across Europe.
We are seeing a dramatic increase in #measles infections in the European Region.— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) August 21, 2018
2018: 41,000 (Jan-Jun)
Every country must keep pushing to increase immunization coverage & close immunity gaps https://t.co/rgrBmhJzlk#VaccinesWork via @WHO_Europepic.twitter.com/LffAIrVDSy
The large outbreaks in Europe have also crossed to England — where there have been 828 confirmed cases this year, according to the Guardian.
London had the biggest number, with 291 cases. The south-east had 169; the south-west had 138; the West Midlands had 85, and Yorkshire and Humberside had 80. Most cases are reportedly among teenagers and young adults who missed out on their MMR vaccine when they were children, according to Public Heath England.
“This is a disease that could be totally prevented by two doses of [measles, mumps, and rubella] MMR vaccine, but we are seeing measles cases across all age groups,” Mark Muscat, medical officer for vaccine-preventable diseases at WHO Europe, told the Guardian.
“When you get importation of the measles virus, of the measles virus, it spreads like wildfire and will infect everybody who is still susceptible to the disease,” he added.
The WHO aims to eliminate measles from Europe by 2020 — but the current outbreak is a serious setback in reaching this goal.
“This partial setback demonstrates that every person who is not immune remains vulnerable no matter where they live, and every country must keep pushing to increase coverage and close immunity gaps, even after achieving interrupted or eliminated status,” said Dr Nedret Emiroglu, director of the division of health emergencies and communicable diseases at the WHO regional office for Europe.
According to WHO, measles is “exceptionally contagious” — and to prevent transmission a community needs to reach a 95% vaccination rate every year.
But vaccinations rates have suffered as a result of hesitancy — for reasons including rumours and misinformation — as well as limited access to health systems.
While they’re still not high enough in some areas across Europe, vaccination rates have recovered following the 1998 confidence crisis that followed a paper published in the Lancet by a London-based gastroenterologist — sparking concern of an alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
The paper has since been proven to be completely false, and has been retracted.
Meanwhile, the gastroenterologist has been struck off the medical register for dishonesty and irresponsibility — after failing to declare that he was being paid by solicitors hoping to pursue vaccine damage cases, according to the Guardian.