Europe saw a four-fold increase in the number of measles cases in 2017, just a year after the number of cases of the highly contagious disease fell to an all-time low, the World Health Organization reported on Tuesday.
A total of 21,315 measles cases were reported in Europe last year, including 35 people – most of them young children – who died of the illness. The number of cases increased by more than 300% when compared to 2016, when a record low of 5,273 cases were reported.
“Every new person affected by measles in Europe reminds us that unvaccinated children and adults, regardless of where they live, remain at risk of catching the disease and spreading it to others who may not be able to get vaccinated,” said WHO Regional Director Zsuzsanna Jakab. “Over 20,000 cases of measles, and 35 lives lost in 2017, are a tragedy we simply cannot accept.”
The surge in measles cases included large outbreaks in 15 European countries. The highest numbers of cases were reported in Romania (5,562), Italy (5,006), and Ukraine (4,767). Smaller outbreaks were reported in Greece, Germany, Serbia, Tajikistan, France, Russia, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Bulgaria, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland.
The surge in cases has been blamed on a number of issues, including parents who refuse to vaccinate over fears of a possible link to autism. But despite numerous studies, scientists have found no credible evidence to that autism is caused by the MMR vaccine.
Measles vaccination is estimated to have saved about 20.4 million lives between 2000 and 2016.
Coverage in Europe for the first dose of measles-containing vaccine is estimated to have gradually decreased over the last 5 years, falling from 95% in 2012 to 93% in 2016, according to WHO. A vaccination coverage of roughly 95% is necessary to protect an entire population.
Other causes for the falling coverage include vaccine shortages, inequitable or inconvenient access to immunization services, and insufficiently informed health workers. Consistently low coverage among marginalized groups in several countries has also been observed.
Health officials are taking a number of steps in an effort to stop the surge in cases. This includes raising public awareness, immunizing health-care professionals and other adults at particular risk, addressing challenges in access, and improving supply planning and logistics.
In Ukraine, where cases of measles have been reported across all provinces, health officials have stepped up their efforts to ensure that children are vaccinated on time. Ukraine, where an armed conflict is taking place in the east, has the lowest immunization coverage in Europe.
Measles is caused by a virus in the paramyxovirus family and it is normally passed through either direct contact or through the air. It is an exclusively human disease and is not known to occur in animals. But while no specific treatment exists for measles, most people recover within 2 to 3 weeks.
Besides death, measles can also cause other serious complications, including blindness, encephalitis, severe diarrhea, ear infection, and pneumonia. Particularly malnourished children and people with reduced immunity are vulnerable to such complications.
References to measles have been found as early as the 7th century, and Persian physician Rhazes described it as “more to be dreaded than smallpox” in the 10th century.
Licensed vaccines to prevent the disease became available in the early 1960s, but even today it continues to be a leading cause of death among young children worldwide, despite the availability of a safe and cost-effective vaccine.
The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 90,000 people worldwide died of measles in 2016, or 10 deaths every hour. Most of those are children under the age of 5. But measles vaccination over the past decade has significantly decreased the number of deaths, falling from 2.6 million in 1980.
In September 2016, the Americas became the first region in the world to be declared free of measles, which remains one of the most highly contagious infections known to humans. The continent has also been declared free of rubella and congenital rubella syndrome.
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