High measles outbreak across Europe threatens progress towards elimination – WHO

Europe with flags [Photo credit: Wilson Center]

The high reported cases of measles outbreak across Europe has threatened the progress towards elimination of the disease in the region.

A press statement from the World Health Organisation, European Region, noted that over 500 measles cases were reported for January 2017 and the continual spread of the disease within and among European countries has a potential to cause large outbreaks wherever immunization coverage has dropped below the necessary threshold of 95per cent.

Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said with steady progress towards elimination over the past two years, it is of particular concern that measles cases are climbing in Europe.

“Today’s travel patterns put no person or country beyond the reach of the measles virus. Outbreaks will continue in Europe, as elsewhere, until every country reaches the level of immunization needed to fully protect their populations.”

Measles is a highly contagious virus that can cause potentially serious illness and remains endemic in most parts of the world.

According to WHO statistics from the Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination, RVC, two-thirds of the Region’s 53 countries have interrupted endemic transmission of measles; however, 14 remain endemic and an unchecked transmission threatens progress of the elimination of HIV epidemic.

About 559 measles cases were reported in the region for January 2017. Of these, 474 cases were reported in 7 of the 14 endemic countries (France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Switzerland and Ukraine).

Preliminary information for February indicates that the number of new infections is sharply rising in all of these countries, and estimated national immunization coverage with the second dose of measles-containing vaccine is less than the 95 per cent threshold.

Mr. Jakab, however, urged all endemic countries to take urgent measures to stop transmission of measles within their borders, and all countries that have already achieved this to keep up their guard and sustain high immunisation coverage.

“Together we must make sure that the hard-earned progress made towards regional elimination is not lost,” he said.

The largest current measles outbreaks in Europe are taking place in Romania and Italy.

Romania has reported over 3400 cases and 17 deaths since January 2016 (as of March 10, 2017) and majority of cases are concentrated in areas where immunization coverage is especially low.

Italy has also seen a sharp rise in cases in the first weeks of 2017. With 238 cases reported so far for January 2017 and preliminary information indicating at least as many cases for February, the total number of cases reported for 2016 (approximately 850) may soon be surpassed.

The WHO Regional Office for Europe is working closely with the national health authorities of countries at risk on Measles and Rubella elimination in Europe.

“With the large measles outbreaks, appropriate response measures are being plan and implemented and these include enhancing surveillance, identifying and immunizing those at heightened risk of infection, especially susceptible persons who may be or come in contact with infected persons, as well as engaging communities to encourage vaccination for all those who need it”, it stated.

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According to reported data, the three measles genotypes circulating in Romania since January 2016 were not spreading in the country before, but were reported in several other European countries and elsewhere in 2015 and comprehensive laboratory and epidemiological data are needed before the origin of infection and routes of transmission can be concluded.

“Therefore, every un- or under-immunised person regardless of age is at risk of contracting the disease; this is especially true in those countries where persistently low immunization rates increase the risk of a large outbreak with possible tragic consequences.”

WHO urges national authorities to therefore maximize their efforts to achieve and/or sustain at least 95 per cent coverage with two doses of measles-containing vaccine to prevent circulation in the event of an importation.

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