A record number of people in Europe were affected by measles in 2018, with 72 children and adults dying of the illness, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.
“More children in the WHO European Region are being vaccinated against measles than ever before; but progress has been uneven between and within countries, leaving increasing clusters of susceptible individuals unprotected, and resulting in a record number of people affected by the virus in 2018,” the organisation said.
“In light of measles data for the year 2018 released today, WHO urges European countries to target their interventions to those places and groups where immunisation gaps persist.”
According to monthly country reports for January to December 2018, received as of February 1 2019, 82 596 people in 47 of 53 countries in WHO’s European region contracted measles.
In countries reporting hospitalisation data, nearly 61 per cent of measles cases were hospitalised.
“The total number of people infected with the virus in 2018 was the highest this decade: three times the total reported in 2017 and 15 times the record low number of people affected in 2016,” WHO said.
The surge in measles cases in 2018 followed a year in which the European Region achieved its highest ever estimated coverage for the second dose of measles vaccination (90 per cent in 2017).
More children in the region received the full two-dose series on time, according to their countries’ immunisation schedules, in 2017 than in any year since WHO started collecting data on the second dose in 2000.
Coverage with the first dose of the vaccine also increased slightly to 95 per cent, the highest level since 2013.
“However, progress in the Region, based on achievements at the national level, can mask gaps at subnational levels, which are often not recognized until outbreaks occur,” WHO said.
“The picture for 2018 makes it clear that the current pace of progress in raising immunisation rates will be insufficient to stop measles circulation,” the WHO statement quoted Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab as saying.
“While data indicate exceptionally high immunisation coverage at regional level, they also reflect a record number affected and killed by the disease. This means that gaps at local level still offer an open door to the virus.
“We cannot achieve healthier populations globally, as promised in WHO’s vision for the coming five years, if we do not work locally. We must do more and do it better to protect each and every person from diseases that can be easily avoided,” Jakab said.
The European Vaccine Action Plan 2015–2020 (EVAP) lays out a strategy endorsed by all 53 member states to eliminate both measles and rubella.
Most importantly, at least 95 per cent of every population needs to be immune, through two doses of vaccination or prior exposure to the virus, to ensure community protection for everyone – including babies too young to be vaccinated and others who cannot be immunized due to existing diseases and medical conditions.
“In adopting EVAP, all countries in the European Region agreed that elimination of measles and rubella is possible, and is also a cost-effective way to protect people of all ages from avoidable suffering and death,” said Dr Nedret Emiroglu, Director of the Division of Health Emergencies and Communicable Diseases, WHO Regional Office for Europe.
Forty-three European countries interrupted transmission of endemic measles for at least 12 months as of the end of 2017.
Some of them also managed to limit the spread of the virus following importation to very few cases in 2017 and 2018, showing that elimination of the disease is well within reach for the whole Region.
“Progress in achieving high national coverage is commendable. However, it cannot make us blind to the people and places that are still being missed. It is here that we must now concentrate increased efforts. We should never become complacent about our successes but continue to strive to reach the final mile. Together we can make this happen,” Emiroglu said.