Recent data reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March 2017 has shown over 3400 cases of measles in Romania alone since February 2016. Among these cases are 17 deaths of unvaccinated children.
The measles outbreak has also been occurring in Italy. Approximately 850 cases of measles were reported in Italy in 2016, and the number does not appear to be decreasing. In January 2017 alone, 238 cases of measles were reported. Preliminary information suggests that at least as many cases will emerge in February.
In comparison, 91 people in the United States were infected with measles between January 2016 and February 2017. A majority of infected individuals were unvaccinated. The United States has recently recovered from its own measles outbreak in 2014, in which a record 667 measles cases from 27 states were reported.
Measles is a highly contagious virus that remains a leading cause of death in children globally. Symptoms of the disease include fever and rash, and in severe cases, can even cause blindness, respiratory infection, and death. No specific anti-viral treatment exists, but the disease can be easily and affordably prevented through vaccination.
The emergence of the measles outbreak in the European Region, particularly in Romania and Italy, is thought to be connected to low vaccination rates among the countries’ residents. In a recent press release, the WHO states that the measles disease “continues to spread within and among European countries, with the potential to cause large outbreaks wherever immunization coverage has dropped below the necessary threshold of 95 percent.”
The anti-vaccine movement, which caught the attention of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in 2013, may be responsible for low vaccination rates in central and Eastern Europe. The research conducted by UNICEF analyzed the rapid spread of the anti-vaccine message across social media networks and reported that “parents actively use social networks and blogs to inform their decisions on vaccinating their children."
A 95 percent immunization coverage is the threshold for herd immunity. In January 2017, 84 percent of the European Region’s new measles cases appeared in seven countries: France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, and Ukraine. A stark commonality between these seven countries is their inadequate immunization coverage, which reflects correlation between inadequate immunization coverage and number of measles cases.
In an effort to eliminate measles and rubella, all 53 countries in the European Region adopted the European Vaccine Action Plan 2015-2020. Of these 53 countries, 14 remain endemic for measles transmission. The seven countries listed above are all included in this group of 14 countries.
A country’s endemic status means that the disease is easily transmittable to any individual with inadequate vaccination. The WHO stresses the importance of achieving and sustaining 95 percent immunization coverage with “2 doses of measles-containing vaccine to prevent circulation in the event of an importation."
The WHO Regional Office for Europe will work closely with countries at risk of measles outbreak to increase disease surveillance and encourage vaccinations for those who need them.
Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO Regional Director for Europe, stated, “I urge all endemic countries to take urgent measures to stop transmission of measles within their borders, and all countries that have already achieved this to keep up their guard and sustain high immunization coverage. Together we must make sure that the hard-earned progress made towards regional elimination is not lost.”
Sources: Measles Cases and Outbreaks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Measles outbreaks across Europe threaten progress towards elimination. WHO/Europe.Measles. World Health Organization.