The number of cases of measles in Europe tripled between 2017 and 2018 to 82,596, according to newly published figures* from the World Health Organization (WHO).
WHO said that although more children in the WHO European region were being vaccinated against measles than ever before, progress had 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 last year.
Measles killed 72 children and adults in the European region in 2018, said WHO, and according to monthly country reports for January to December of last year, 82,596 people in 47 of 53 countries contracted measles.
The total number of people infected with the virus in 2018 was the highest this decade and was three times the total reported in 2017 and 15 times the record low number of people affected in 2016.
In those countries reporting hospitalisation data for 2018, 61% of measles cases were hospitalised.
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% 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% - the highest level since 2013.
While immunisation coverage had improved overall in the region, many people were still susceptible, warned WHO.
Estimated coverage with the second dose of measles vaccine was below the 95% threshold to prevent circulation in 34 countries of the region in 2017 and subnational coverage rates pointed to disparities even within countries.
The European Vaccine Action Plan 2015–2020 lays out a strategy endorsed by all 53 Member States to eliminate both measles and rubella.
Importantly, at least 95% 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 immunised due to existing diseases and medical conditions.
Dr Nedret Emiroglu, director of the division of health emergencies and communicable diseases at the WHO Regional Office for Europe, said: “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.”
Most of the countries struggling with suboptimal immunisation coverage against measles in the region were middle-income countries.
There was 953 measles cases in the UK in 2018, compared with those with the highest numbers – Ukraine had 53,218, Serbia had 5,076, Israel had 2,919 and France had 2,913 – while some countries had no cases at all.
Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe, 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.
“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.”
*WHO EpiData, No. 1/2019, January 2018 - December 2018. WHO data, recieved 1 February 2019