Measles Cases are Surging in Europe: What You Need to Know

More than†41,000 people in Europe have been infected with measles in the first six months of 2018, almost double the number for the entirety of 2017 and far exceeding yearly numbers for the last decade.

This startling evaluation comes from the World Health Organisation’s European branch. The health watchdog is particularly concerned that several nations in the†European region have seen over 1,000 infections among children and adults this year alone.

France, Greece, Italy and the Russian Federation are among that list. Hardest hit at this time appears to be the Ukraine, with†23,000 infections. Serbia has, so far, seen the most fatalities, with 14 deaths related to measles so far this year.

“Following the decade’s lowest number of cases in 2016, we are seeing a dramatic increase in infections and extended outbreaks,” Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, is quoted†as saying. “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.”

Why is this rise in measles cases happening?

To understand why this is happening it’s first important to understand what measles is and how we prevent measles outbreaks.

Measles is an highly infectious disease caused by the measles virus. It is characterized by early flulike symptoms†that then progress into a rash that may cover the entire body.

Measles-related deaths are usually the result of complications and not the result of the virus itself, though high fever can lead to fatality. Most serious complications occur in unvaccinated young children, the unvaccinated elderly, or people who have a compromised immune system.

The good news is that measles is highly preventable thanks to the measles vaccine.

In Europe, as in many parts of the world, the measles vaccine is given as part of a combination treatment known as the measles, mumps and rubella or MMR vaccine. Despite the vaccine’s proven effectiveness and high safety record,†confidence in the vaccine has been compromised as a result of gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield’s false claim that there exists a link between autism and the vaccine. This has been proved false by a series of clinical reviews.

Despite this, so-called “anti-vaxxers” have emerged as a prominent campaign force. Aided by the internet, they have been able to perpetuate doubt about the MMR vaccine, as well as a number of other vaccines including those for HPV and other literally life-saving†vaccines.

As the Guardian points out, we have also seen a distinct overlap between vaccine science denial and populist right-wing leaders. France’s†Marine le Pen, for example, opposes laws that would compel†parents to vaccinate or face fines, something that is repeated throughout Europe wherever right wing leaders are prominent. This isn’t a solely right-of-center issue though, with some on the left-leaning libertarians saying that mandatory vaccinations go too far.

The problem with†the anti-vax movement is it erodes herd immunity.

For the measles vaccine to eradicate the virus from a population (that is to say, to make the number of cases statistically insignificant), people need to have gotten two doses and coverage has to be around 95 percent. What we are seeing in Europe is vaccine uptake that is far below that threshold, so people who would normally be protected are not. The World Health Organisation believes some countries have an uptake that is now below 70 percent.

As the BBC notes, this is a Europe-wide issue, because even in nations where MMR vaccination is relatively good, cases in Europe mean that unvaccinated people are still vulnerable.

“We have seen a number of measles outbreaks in England which are linked to ongoing large outbreaks in Europe,”†Dr. Mary Ramsay†of Public Health England is quoted as saying. “The majority of cases we are seeing are in teenagers and young adults who missed out on their MMR vaccine when they were children.†… We would encourage people to ensure they are up to date with their MMR vaccine before travelling to countries with ongoing measles outbreaks, heading to large gatherings such as festivals, or before starting university.”

How do we tackle this measles problem?

There is no one easy fix. Individual nations within Europe have different socio-economic vulnerabilities and issues, meaning that they will have to tackle this unfolding problem with tailored solutions to meet their populations’ needs.

However, one wider action point is fighting back against the anti-science, anti-vaccine claims that proliferate on the internet. Social media platforms like Facebook have a responsibility to flag untrustworthy sources used to justify partially false or entirely untrue claims about vaccines and their safety record.

News sources also have a duty to properly contextualize study results, as well as to report deaths or health problems that coincide with vaccine uptake in ways that do not sensationalize or create a false negative bias.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

50 comments

Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson3 months ago

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Janis K
Janis K4 months ago

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Amanda M
Amanda McConnell4 months ago

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Amanda M
Amanda McConnell4 months ago

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hELEN h
hELEN h4 months ago

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Leo C
Leo C4 months ago

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Colin Clauscen
Colin C4 months ago

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Liliana Garcia
Liliana Garcia4 months ago

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Janis K
Janis K4 months ago

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Brandy S
Brandy S4 months ago

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