Measles Cases Hit Record High in Parts of Europe

Megan Brooks

August 21, 2018

More than 41,000 children and adults in the World Health Organization's (WHO's) European Region were infected with measles in the first 6 months of 2018, and at least 37 people died, the WHO said Monday.

The total number of cases for this period far exceeds the 12-month totals reported for every other year this decade, the WHO said. To date, the highest annual total for measles cases between 2010 and 2017 was 23,927 in 2017, and the lowest was 5273 in 2016.

"Following the decade's lowest number of cases in 2016, we are seeing a dramatic increase in infections and extended outbreaks," Zsuzsanna Jakab, Phd, WHO regional director for Europe, said in a news release.

"We call on all countries to immediately implement broad, context-appropriate measures to stop further spread of this disease. Good health for all starts with immunization, and as long as this disease is not eliminated, we are failing to live up to our Sustainable Development Goal commitments," Jakab said.

Seven of the 53 countries in the WHO European Region have seen more than 1000 infections in children and adults this year (France, Georgia, Greece, Italy, the Russian Federation, Serbia, and Ukraine). Ukraine has been the hardest hit, with the number infected topping 23,000. These cases account for more than half of the regional total. All seven countries have reported measles-related deaths, with Serbia reporting the highest number, 14.

Uneven Progress Toward Elimination  

The WHO also said Monday that 43 of the 53 member states that make up the European Region have interrupted the endemic spread of measles and 42 have interrupted the spread of rubella, as determined on the basis of the latest data from the European Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination. But the commission also expressed concerns about inadequate disease surveillance and low rates of immunization in some countries. It concluded that chains of measles transmission continued for more than a year in some countries that had interrupted the endemic spread of the disease.

"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," Nedret Emiroglu, MD, PhD, director, Division of Health Emergencies and Communicable Diseases at the WHO Regional Office for Europe, said in the release.

A Stoppable Disease

To prevent measles outbreaks, at least 95% immunization coverage with two doses of measles-containing vaccine is needed every year in every community. In addition, efforts are needed to reach children, adolescents, and adults who missed routine vaccinations in the past, the WHO noted.

Although immunization coverage with two doses of measles-containing vaccine increased from 88% of eligible children in the European Region in 2016 to 90% in 2017, "large disparities" at the local level persist, the WHO said, with some communities reporting over 95% coverage, and others reporting coverage levels below 70%.

The WHO said it's working closely with member states currently facing outbreaks to implement response measures, including enhanced routine and supplemental immunization as well as heightened surveillance to quickly detect cases. The agency is also working with other countries to meet the 95% threshold.

"At this midterm juncture for the European Vaccine Action Plan, we must celebrate our achievements while not losing sight of those who are still vulnerable and whose protection requires our urgent and ongoing attention," said Jakab. "We can stop this deadly disease. But we will not succeed unless everyone plays their part: to immunize their children, themselves, their patients, their populations — and also to remind others that vaccination saves lives."

All 53 countries in the European Region will review midterm progress toward the goals of the European Vaccine Action Plan at the 68th session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe, to be held September 17 to 20 in Rome, Italy.

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