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Alarming spike in measles in Europe: WHO

August 29, 2019

The UN health body said countries need to launch vaccination campaigns and dispel misinformation about vaccines. Some people falsely believe vaccines are unsafe when, in reality, they have saved millions of lives.

Measles vaccine
Image: Getty Images/Y. Dyachyshyn

There has been a "dramatic resurgence" in measles cases in Europe, the World Health Organization said Thursday, urging countries to increase vaccination efforts and counter misinformation about the safety of vaccines.

The WHO said there were nearly 90,000 cases of the highly contagious disease in 48 European countries in the first six months of 2019, almost double the number of cases reported for all of 2018.

Read moreWhy measles is so deadly and vaccination so important

Just four countries — Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Russia — accounted for 78% of cases in the first half of 2019, with 60% in Ukraine alone.

Based on 2018 data, four countries — Albania, Britain, the Czech Republic and Greece — lost their "measles-free" status, defined as going 12 months without any cases. Measles is considered endemic in 12 countries, including France and Germany.

Read more: German government backs compulsory measles jab for schools, kindergartens

"Reestablishment of measles transmission is concerning. If high immunization coverage is not achieved and sustained in every community, both children and adults will suffer unnecessarily and some will tragically die," warned Gunter Pfaff, the head of the WHO's European Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination.

Measles is a highly contagious airborne infection that causes fever, coughing and rashes. It can lead to other complications and even result in death. 

The WHO attributes the rise in measles cases to lack of access to quality healthcare and misinformation about the safety of vaccines.

Experts say the disease is often spread among school-age children whose parents refuse to give their children the combined MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella.

Read moreWHO: Anti-vaccination campaigns threaten global health

The anti-vaccination movement falsely believes the MMR vaccine increases the risk of autism in children.

Some 60% of infections in Europe in the first half of 2019 were people under the age of 19.

"We do see misinformation as an increasing threat," said Kate O'Brien, director of the WHO's Immunization Department. "We are calling on social media providers, communities, leaders, people who speak out, to be sure you are communicating accurate, valid, scientifically credible information."

Globally, the number of cases this year tripled to 364,808 compared to the first seven months last year, although the WHO cautioned that nine in 10 cases are believed to go unrecorded.

The WHO said in reality there were about 6.7 million suspected cases worldwide.

In 2017, measles caused an estimated 109,000 deaths.

According to the WHO, more than 20 million deaths have been prevented around the worldwide between 2000 and 2016 due to measles vaccination.

cw/ng (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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