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World Health Organization Warns of Threat to Measles Elimination Target

Posted on May 07, 2013 by Sergio Ulloa ()

The 53 European nations of the World Health Organization (WHO) have pledged to combat the spread of measles across the continent and aim to achieve the total elimination of measles by 2015. Experts at the WHO, however, warn that new outbreaks of the disease, as well as too few inoculations across the continent, put this target under threat. The WHO insists that intensive catch-up vaccination campaigns across Europe are necessary to combat recent epidemics and curtail the spread of measles.

Characterized by a high fever and a rash, in around one in every fifteen sufferers measles can cause serious and permanent complications such as eye disorders, deafness, brain inflammation or even death. According to data provided by the WHO, between March 2012 and February 2013, there were no reported cases of measles whatsoever in many European countries, including Cyprus, Hungary and Latvia. However, dangerously high numbers of  cases were recorded in the UK, Ireland, the Ukraine and Romania. In the Ukraine, for example, there were 206.6 reported cases of measles for every 1 million of the population, which amounted to over 9,200 cases over the course of the year. In the UK there were a reported 2229 cases. A large measles epidemic in Swansea, Wales last month saw over 580 people become infected with measles in April alone.

A large vaccination campaign has been launched in the UK in response to recent outbreaks of measles, which aims to target more than a million schoolchildren who have not had the necessary two doses of the MMR vaccine. Experts at the WHO are encouraging other countries to follow suit to prevent similar epidemics and curb the spread of measles in Europe, as even countries with a very high uptake rate still contain dangerous pockets of unvaccinated people.

Thought to be responsible for some 300 million deaths in the 20th Century alone, smallpox wreaked havoc until an intense, world-wide vaccination program took place, after which the disease was declared eradicated in 1980. The WHO aim to replicate this triumph over smallpox in their fight against measles, but recognize that this task is not an easy one. Measles is more infectious than smallpox, meaning that a higher percentage of the global population need to be immunized in order to eradicate it. Experts suggest that 95% of people ought to be fully immunized to achieve this goal.

Countries across Europe are falling short of this target of vaccinating 95% of their population against measles. A now-discredited link between the MMR vaccine and autism was previously suggested in 1998 which could explain why vaccination goals have not been met. In the UK, London has been identified as a particular problem as in some areas, the vaccination rate fell to as low as 50% at the height of the MMR scare. Industry experts also suggest that there exists a general distrust of and skepticism towards vaccination amongst the European middle classes, which further reduces the popularity of the MMR vaccination.

Ultimately, the WHO see the total eradication of measles by 2015 as an achievable yet distant prospect. The key to achieving this goal, as they see it, is by increasing awareness and widespread immunization campaigns across the continent, including in isolated, unvaccinated pockets all over Europe.

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