Rise of measles in Europe due to dropping vaccination rates

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WHO: Measles spreading in Europe due to dropping vaccination rates

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is attributing the rise of measles in Europe to a drop in MMR vaccinations.

The first half of 2018 saw a surge of reported measles cases across the continent. Over 41,000 individuals (children and adults) caught the infectious disease between January and June of this year. This figure is nearly twice the number of cases in the region for the entirety of 2017.

Measles is highly contagious and can be fatal. The infection spreads through airborne particles in coughs and sneezes and also through exposure to contaminated surfaces. For most, the illness lasts for just over a week and the initial symptoms are similar to a cold (sneezing, blocked nose, aching joints and a cough). A rash then develops which is made up of red blotches that can be flat to the skin or slightly raised. The blotches most commonly start on the head or neck before spreading to the rest of the body.

Most who contract the disease recover once the infection runs its course and their fever breaks. However, the disease brings with it the potential for dangerous and even deadly complications – these include encephalitis (swelling of the brain), pneumonia, meningitis, hepatitis and febrile convulsions. There have been 37 measles-related deaths in 2018 so far.

The MMR vaccine (against measles, mumps and rubella) was first introduced in 1988. As well as giving the vaccinated individual protection against the diseases, it also helps protect the wider community. If most people become essentially immune, the viruses will be unable to spread and will effectively die out. 95% is said to be the ‘herd immunity threshold’; 95 out of 100 need to be inoculated to protect those who are too young or too immunocompromised to be vaccinated from potentially deadly contact with the virus.

So what’s behind the dip in vaccination rates? Some blame belongs to a widely discredited study published in the 1990s that suggested a link between the measles vaccine and autism. Despite the research having been debunked, the ‘anti-vax’ movement has gathered pace in recent years and has proved effective at convincing some parents to eschew following the recommended vaccination schedule for their children. According to the UK’s NHS (National Health Service), children should receive two doses of the MMR vaccine at around one and four years old.

The WHO aims to entirely eradicate measles from Europe by 2020, a theoretically achievable goal that is under threat from vaccine sceptics. Anti-establishment political parties, which have enjoyed a rise in popularity throughout Europe, campaigning on the principles of personal freedom and a mistrust in institutions have exacerbated the problem. Italy’s Five Star movement and France’s National Rally (led by Marine Le Pen) vehemently oppose the concept of mandatory vaccination.

According to the WHO report, Ukraine is the European country most affected by the rise in measles cases, with over 23,000 infections reported in 2018 so far. Countries with over 1000 cases include France, Italy, Greece, Georgia, Serbia and Russia.

Dr Mark Muscat (technical officer with the vaccine-preventable diseases and immunisation programme at WHO Europe) commented, “The current outbreaks threaten the lives of children and adults, and put the progress that has been made so far at risk […] This is an unnecessary and unacceptable tragedy when we have a safe and effective vaccine available to prevent the disease.”

Read more about WHO here.

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