New data published on 7 February shows measles infection rates in Europe have tripled over the last year.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on February 8, 2019

The World Health Organization (WHO) published the new findings, which showed overall infection rates for the disease are the highest in 10 years.

While more children across the WHO European Region are receiving the measles vaccination, the rollout of vaccinations has been uneven and there are regions with many unprotected children. The WHO has appealed to countries to ensure any immunisation gaps are closed.

Vaccination rates across Europe are generally high, but significant gaps remain

There were 72 recorded deaths from measles across Europe in 2018 and 82,596 people contracted the disease. The number of people infected with measles was an alarming 15 times higher than the lowest figure recorded back in 2016.

WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab said that “exceptionally high immunization coverage” across the continent belied significant gaps at local level.

“We cannot achieve healthier populations globally, as promised in WHO’s vision for the coming five years, if we do not work locally,” Jakab said. “We must do more and do it better to protect each and every person from diseases that can be easily avoided.”

In 34 European countries, estimated coverage of measles vaccine has fallen below 95%, the number needed to achieve herd immunity.

The highest incidence of measles infection was seen in Ukraine, where there were 1209 measles cases per 1 million people in 2018. The Eastern European nation had more than 53,218 cases.

One explanation for the reversal of the previous trend of measles infection rates falling is the influence of anti-vaccine campaigners who have sought to discourage parents from immunising their children in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are both effective and safe.

The anti-vaccination movement has some pockets of support across Europe

The Five Star Movement in Italy had been active in pushing conspiracy theories and campaigning against vaccines, though it seemed to change tack when measles infection rates soared last year.

Deputy Prime Minister of Italy Matteo Salvini had called vaccinations “useless and in many cases dangerous” and repeated discredited theories about them causing autism. Measles was especially resurgent in Italy, where cases jumped from 850 in 2016 to 5,000 in 2018.

There was also a five-fold rise in measles cases in the United Kingdom in 2018. Health officials attributed the trend to declining rates of vaccination and people contracting the disease during travel to European countries such as Romania and Italy.

Heidi Larson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said the uptick in measles case in Europe presented a “wake-up call on the importance of building confidence in vaccination”.

Professor Arne Akbar, president of the British Society for Immunology, said the new data was “extremely concerning”.