The measles virus is causing a major epidemic across Europe, and more than 500 cases have been reported in January, especially in countries where immunisation is lagging.

Most outbreaks came from France, Germany, Italy, Romania, Poland, Switzerland and Ukraine which account for 474 of the 559 cases reported. The countries have vaccination levels that fell below the 95% threshold for protecting the entire population.

“With steady progress towards elimination over the past two years, it is of particular concern that measles cases are climbing in Europe,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director for Europe.

Figures expected to spike, says WHO

Italy and Romania top the list, with latest records showing that Romania has over 3,400 cases and 17 deaths since early last year. Italy has seen 238 cases in January 2017, and preliminary figures for February indicate that the number of new infections is rising sharply, according to the WHO.

“I urge 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,” said Jakab.

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

Robb Butler from the WHO Regional Office for Europe added that in some countries, like the Ukraine, there have been supply and procurement issues. He said that vaccine hesitancy could explain the low vaccination coverage in some regions.

“Some people are fearful of vaccination, while others are complacent or find it an inconvenience,” he said.

In poor countries, many people do not have access to the USD $1 vaccine, but the WHO has pointed out that children in affluent countries are in greater risk of infection because of scepticism about immunisation.

"We need to get to the point where we appreciate that people have busy lives and competing priorities," Butler stressed.

Outbreak is every country’s concern

Dr Jakab cautioned that the infectious virus can spread to any country, including those who have eliminated the disease.

“Today’s travel patterns put no person or country beyond the reach of the measles virus,” said DJakab.

“Outbreaks will continue in Europe, as elsewhere, until every country reaches the level of immunisation needed to fully protect their populations,” he added.

The WHO Regional Office for Europe is working closely with the national health authorities of countries at risk to step up feasible measures which include enhancing surveillance and identifying and immunising those at heightened risk of infection.

Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at Public Health England, said England’s uptake of measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine by five years of age has reached the WHO’s target of 95%.

“In the last year, the measles cases confirmed in England have mainly been in older adolescents and young adults with many linked to music festivals and other large public events," according to Ramsay.

"We are continuing to invest in programmes which encourage uptake of the vaccine to ultimately consign measles to the history books.”

Numbers up in Malaysia and Singapore

Singapore, where measles vaccination for children is mandatory, has seen a surge in cases of measles just last year which have tripled from 2015 to 2016. After 50 cases were reported in May 2016, Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) reminded parents to get their children vaccinated against the virus.

"It is important to ensure that their young children receive two doses of the MMR vaccination on time," the MOH said.

Not too far away, Malaysia recorded an alarming 340% spike in measles infections last year, with 873 cases compared to 197 in the previous year.

Datuk Abd Rahim Mohamad, president of the Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia, said, “The figures come amid public concern over reports that an increasing number of parents are not immunising their children over fears that the vaccines available are not halal.”

Despite a declaration by the National Fatwa Council that the vaccines are halal, Kedah reported the highest number of such cases. Deputy Education Minister P Kamalanathan also said there are plans to make vaccinations mandatory for students nationwide. MIMS

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