Measles still a major threat in Europe

Most cases occur in unvaccinated people
  • Deborah Condon

The vast majority of measles cases reported in Europe in recent years were among people who were not vaccinated, a new study has revealed.

According to the findings, infants affected by the disease faced the highest risk of death.

The study was carried out by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in Sweden. Researchers looked at all 37,365 cases of measles reported to the ECDC from January 1, 2013, to December 31, 2017.

They found that 81% of these cases occurred in patients who were not vaccinated against measles.

Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a viral infection. It causes cold-like symptoms and a rash, but can also lead to more serious complications, such as breathing difficulties, pneumonia and acute encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).

The best way to protect yourself from measles is to get the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. In Ireland, this is given twice - at 12 months of age and again at four-to-five years - as part of the routine immunisation programme.

The study found that 33% of people who developed measles had to be hospitalised.

It also found that 81% of cases were over two years of age. Of the 19% who were under two, 9% were between one and two years, and 10% were younger than one year.

The researchers, who presented their findings at the 28th European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases in Madrid, said that the rate at which patients died from measles highlights the impact the disease can have on very young children. Overall, one in every 1,000 measles patients died, however the most fatalities were recorded in the youngest cases.

Those aged between one and two years were six times more likely to die from measles compared to those aged two or older. Those aged less than one year were seven times more likely to die.

As very young infants are not routinely vaccinated against measles, they are relying on herd immunity. This is a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that occurs when a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, such as through vaccination.

The findings were released ahead of European Immunisation Week, which runs from April 23-29. As part of this event, the HSE is calling on people to check their vaccination status before travelling anywhere, 'as vaccine complacenly could cost lives in Ireland due to large measles outbreaks and related deaths in Europe'.

Many European countries are reporting outbreaks, including popular holiday destinations such as Greece, France and Italy. In fact, cases in France have almost tripled since March, while cases in Italy have more than doubled.

"In Ireland, we are experiencing our own outbreaks, with 65 cases reported so far this year. Measles is one of the most infectious diseases - one case can infect up to 18 people. It is spread by coughing and sneezing, and close contact with an infected individual. As we enter the summer season with people travelling on holidays, no person or country is beyond the reach of the measles virus," commented Dr Brenda Corcoran of the HSE.

She urged people to get vaccinated if they have not already done so.

"We must remember that vaccines are a simple, effective and safe way to save lives and prevent serious illness," she added.

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