Vaccination lapse blamed for measles surge in Europe

Sunday February 11 2024

The WHO says the rise in cases has accelerated in recent months, a trend that is expected to continue if urgent measures are not taken across to prevent spread. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK


The European region has experienced an unprecedented surge in measles cases, with a staggering 30,000 cases reported last year, compared to just 941 cases reported in 2022. This represents a 30-fold increase in 2023.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the cases were reported by 40 of the region’s 53 member states between January and October 2023.

The rise has been accompanied by nearly 21,000 hospitalisations and five measles-related deaths, raising serious concerns, officials say.

WHO says the resurgence of measles is largely attributed to a backsliding in vaccination coverage in the region, where over 1.8 million infants missed their measles vaccination between 2020 and 2022 due to disruptions caused by the Covid-19, as well as misinformation about the safety of vaccines.

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The WHO says the rise in cases has accelerated in recent months, a trend that is expected to continue if urgent measures are not taken across to prevent spread.


Measles, an extremely contagious airborne illness caused by a viral infection, spreads effortlessly through respiratory droplets when an infected individual breathes, coughs, or sneezes. It can lead to severe health issues, complications, and even fatality. While it can affect individuals of all ages, it is predominantly observed among children. Common symptoms include high fever, cough, runny nose, and rashes.

The disease has been affecting all age groups with significant variations in case distribution among countries. Two in five cases were reported among children aged 1 to 4, while one in five cases affected adults aged 20 and older.

The UK Health Security Agency has declared a national incident due to the surge and parents and carers urged to book children for missed vaccines.

The removal of Covid-19-related public health measures and resumption of travel increased the risk of cross-border disease transmission, particularly in communities with lower vaccination rates. Cases have been reported in countries where measles had been declared eliminated, highlighting the vulnerability to outbreaks following virus importation.

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The National Health Service (NHS) England figures show more than 3.4 million children under the age of 16 years are unprotected and at risk of catching these serious and preventable diseases.

WHO has said the pandemic significantly impacted immunisation system performance resulting in a significant number of un- and under-vaccinated children with over 1.8 million infants in the region reported as having missed their measles vaccination between 2020 and 2022.

Reported national coverage with the first dose of measles-containing vaccine in the Region dropped from 96 percent in 2019 to 93 percent in 2022, with second-dose coverage falling from 92 percent to 91 percent in the same period.

Addressing this resurgence requires a focus on immunisation inequities, with tailored strategies to target disparities and promote vaccine equity in every community.

WHO Europe, in collaboration with partners, is actively supporting countries with large outbreaks by conducting case investigations, implementing infection control measures, raising awareness, enhancing disease surveillance, and planning and implementing outbreak response immunisation.