Concerns mount over childhood diseases among Roma minority

Health authorities are stepping up efforts to vaccinate the Roma community as research reveals shockingly low levels of immunisation against preventable diseases.

A dangerous mix of poor access to health services and a lack of confidence in vaccination has allowed infectious diseases to infect thousands of Roma children across Europe in recent years.

In Bulgaria, for example, 90% of measles cases recorded during the 2010 outbreak were among the Roma community.

Now, new research shows that vaccination rates against measles are lower than 15% among children under five living in Roma settlements in Belgrade. The same study showed that immunisation against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (with the DTP vaccine) is just 16.7% while only 16% have received the oral polio vaccine. Immunisation rates against infectious diseases in the Bulgarian population as a whole are just above the global average at around 94%.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has called for a targeted campaign designed to engage ‘hard-to-reach’ groups – a major challenge given the disconnect which often exists between the Roma community and public health officials.

Zsuzsanna Jakab, World Health Organisation Regional Director for Europe, has said tackling Roma children’s health is essential and that the WHO Europe has made the reduction of health inequities one of its ‘Health 2020’ goals.

At a conference on boosting ‘Roma health services in Serbia and beyond’, she listed a range of barriers to boosting immunisation rates including social exclusion, low perception of risk, lack of confidence in vaccine safety and quality, and challenges in accessing health services.

In a detailed presentation, Jakab said the “strongest determinant for vaccination uptake is citizenship” and she urged authorities in Europe to improve the living conditions of the Roma population.

Serbia, which is part of the WHO European Region recently took a major step towards becoming a member of the European Union, and has introduced a new law guaranteeing full, free health services to the Roma community.