More than 1,100 new cases were reported in the west of the country in November and December, and one child died from measles-related complications.
The timing of the outbreak could hardly be worse. The European agency responsible for tracking public health threats has warned that the arrival of people from all over the continent will see a surge in infections which could then spread across Europe.
Measles outbreaks were recorded at last year’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand where supporters typically live in close quarters for a couple of weeks and spend time in large groups socializing before, during and after games.
A race against time
Ukraine, which co-hosts the UEFA European Champtionships with Poland, is now seeking to boost immunisation rates but has been facing an uphill struggle due to its limited resources. The government has been criticised for its preparations for the competition amid concerns that cash-flow constraints could jeopardise the completion of stadium construction projects.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which is urging investment in immunisation programmes, said the measles outbreak was not a surprise. “The measles outbreak in Ukraine is not unexpected given the low and declining measles vaccination coverage in the country,” the agency said in its regular measles monitoring bulletin.
In 2008, a World Health Organisation (WHO) expert group warned that a spate of outbreaks was “inevitable” after health authorities in Kiev suspended immunisation programmes. In 2010, coverage for the first dose of measles vaccine was 56.1% and coverage for the second dose was 40.7%
The current outbreak remains mild compared to the 43,000 cases seen in a 2006 epidemic but the ECDC says the unprecedented mass gatherings planned for June could be a tipping point.
“In June 2012, Ukraine will host the European Football Championship together with Poland. If the current measles outbreak develops into a major epidemic, then local measles transmission rates will be high during this mass gathering event,” the ECDC said in a statement.
Meanwhile, just three European countries – Cyprus, Iceland and Hungary – were measles-free at the end of November 2011. However, Hungary reported a small outbreak of five cases in December.
The cluster of cases, which Hungarian authorities say is now under control, was recorded in three related ethnic Roma families. The Roma community across Europe has had a significantly higher rate of infection than the population average due to lower rates of immunisation.