A major measles outbreak has gripped the Ukraine as it prepares to welcome hundreds of thousands of football fans for the UEFA European Championships in June.
Officials in Kiev say 5,000 new measles cases have been recorded since the beginning of the year but European authorities fear this could be an underestimate.
The risk of continued measles in Ukraine is high and the epidemic is expected to accelerate over the next few months, according to the EU body responsible for disease surveillance.
The European Centre of Disease Protection and Control (ECDC) warned last month that urgent action was required to control the spread of measles after 1,100 cases were reported in November and December 2011.
Now, in a new report, the agency says “there is a risk that the actual numbers [of new cases in 2012] are considerably higher” than the 5,000 estimated by the Ukraine.
“The epidemic is expected to accelerate and spread geographically during the peak transmission season for measles from February to June,” according to the ECDC.
Most of the new infections have been recorded in the country’s western region which borders Poland – the Ukraine’s ‘Euro 2012’ co-host – as well as Slovakia and Hungary.
The ECDC has repeated its advice to football fans to ensure that they are vaccinated before travelling to the Ukraine this summer. “The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is safe and effective and generally has very few side effects,” the ECDC said.
Vaccination uptake ‘too low’
The report quotes “non-official sources” as saying there is a strong anti-vaccination lobby in the Ukraine which is actively stoking public scepticism towards vaccination.
Coverage with the first dose of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine in the Ukraine is just 56% while coverage with two doses is 41%.
The ECDC and World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend two doses of the MMR vaccine in order to be immunised against measles. Around 95% of the population should be immunised to achieve herd immunity – which helps to protect those who cannot be vaccinated, such as people with cancer or immune system disorders.
There are also concerns that low vaccination rates in the Ukraine could spark outbreaks of other vaccine-preventable diseases such as rubella, mumps, polio, pertussis and diphtheria.
In addition to the risk that football fans will contract measles in the Ukraine and bring it back to their home countries, authorities say measles-infected travellers could become a source of new infections in the Ukraine.
“The risk of importing vaccine-preventable diseases into Ukraine is high, notably for rubella given the outbreak in Romania,” the ECDC said.