Europe’s Measles Outbreak Fueled by Low Vaccination Rates

The World Health Organization has issued an alert about a rapid rise in measles cases throughout Europe, a situation largely attributed to low immunization numbers.

Today, measles remains one of the leading causes of death among young children, despite the existence of a safe and relatively inexpensive vaccine. In fact, according to WHO’s latest figures, in 2015 there were 134 200 measles deaths globally. That’s a significant reduction on figures from just two decades ago, but it isn’t anywhere near the WHO’s target: elimination of measles in at least five major regions of the world by the year 2020.

Now, the World Health Organization is sounding the alarm that seven European nations — including France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Switzerland and the Ukraine — have dropped below the 95 percent immunization threshold considered to be “safe.” That measure of safety generally means that a majority of the population who can be vaccinated is protected and that herd immunity for those who can’t be vaccinated is strong.

The WHO is particularly concerned that preliminary data from February appears to show a significant and sharp rise in measles cases. To illustrate the severity of this increase, Italy has 700 cases on record so far this year, but just 220 cases were reported for the same period last year.

The WHO states that, in most cases, a less than optimal uptake of vaccines is responsible for measles outbreaks across Europe. The BBC reports:

Robb Butler, of the WHO Regional Office for Europe, says there are a number of reasons why vaccination coverage has waned in some regions.

“In some countries, like the Ukraine, there have been supply and procurement issues.”

Then there’s vaccine hesitancy. Some people are fearful of vaccination, while others are complacent or find it an inconvenience, he says.

In France, for example, people need to make an appointment with their doctor to get a prescription, go to the pharmacy to collect the vaccine and then rebook with their doctor to have the jab administered.

“We need to get to the point where we appreciate that people have busy lives and competing priorities.”

As a whole, the actual global uptake of measles vaccines — both single and combined vaccinations — has increased significantly over the past two decades. In fact, estimates suggest that the measles vaccine has prevented in excess of 20.3 million deaths. This statistic, the WHO notes, makes the vaccine among the most cost-effective public health measures in the world.

As a result, streamlining vaccine processes — like those highlighted in France — will be critical to ensure as many people as possible can get the protection they need.

But we cannot ignore the growth of the anti-vaccine movement as one of the main culprits for a lack of adherence to vaccine schedules. The Independent notes that in Italy the emergence of the Five Star Movement (M5S) – a major player on the political scene — has brought with it a larger platform for vaccine safety denial. Members of the Movement have even called for a ban on vaccines.  

What’s even more frustrating is that there is no credible debate on the safety of the measles vaccine. Scientific evidence has repeatedly shown that while there are risks of a severe reaction in a very small number of cases, the measles vaccine is safe for the vast majority of people. And at worst, its side effects are usually only mild. Furthermore, there is no link between MMR, the combined vaccine and autism.

How do we address Europe’s vaccination problem?

We must recognize that this health issue cannot be tackled on a nation by nation basis. As the world has become increasingly more connected, there is a potential for greater spread of communicable diseases. While immigration does not automatically lead to higher prevalence of such diseases, it is reasonable to identify movement between countries as a risk factor. Coordinated efforts across neighboring countries will be essential to ensure that immunity is not compromised.

Secondly, greater education about vaccines and vaccine safety will be necessary to combat the spread of misinformation and alleviate doubts about vaccine effectiveness. One strategy is to provide expecting parents with better and clearer information to learn about vaccines and understand how to recognize major myths.

Clearly, this news highlights the fact that we cannot afford to be complacent on measles and vaccine uptake. Such an error could endanger children’s lives.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Marie W
Marie W1 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Darlene B

Considering the MMR shot is not always effective this should be part of the conversation. Alternative ways of preventing measles outbreaks should also be part of the conversation if prevention of measles rather than the promotion of vaccines is the intention.

Telica R
Telica R1 years ago

Believe what you want

rosario p
rosario p.1 years ago

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases in the world. The virus infects more than 10 million children annually and takes the lives of about 130,000 people worldwide. It is a WORLDWIDE problem and all nations are affected or able to be, looking aside will not give any solution and some new guidelines are more than necessary to be taken.

Peggy B
Peggy B1 years ago

You cannot take pets / animals to other countries without vaccinations, but people can

Anne Moran
Anne Moran1 years ago

Wow !! - Harrd to believe that in this day and age, kids are dying of measles...

Jennifer H
Jennifer H1 years ago

I'm not sure if anyone would agree but I felt this statement to be stupid...."“We need to get to the point where we appreciate that people have busy lives and competing priorities.”" I would think a possible life-threatening disease prevention would be a priority.

william Miller
william Miller1 years ago


Shirley S
Shirley S1 years ago

My siblings & I all had measles without any complications as at that time there were no vaccines. My children also survived measles. Maybe we have healthy immune systems ??

Lenore K
Lenore K1 years ago