How to beat measles

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

April 20th, 2015

Gary Finnegan

‘With thousands of people in Europe suffering from a highly-contagious but preventable illness, there are plenty of reasons to believe we can fight measles – and win. ’

Some days the headlines make for miserable reading:

Measles kills German toddler
5,000 people catch measles in Bosnia
Girl dies after measles infection
Losers: Europe trails the world in war on measles
More than 10,000 measles cases in Kyrgyzstan

But we should not despair. Measles can and will be kicked out of Europe. How long this will take depends on how quickly we can learn from those who have succeeded before us.

After all, today nobody catches measles in Japan, South Korea, Columbia, Cambodia or Cuba.

Measles elimination has been achieved in a broad range of countries each with their own political systems, their own methods of delivering health services and varying levels of wealth.

Europe has (mostly) well developed health systems, is (relatively) very wealthy and is (with some exceptions) politically stable.

95% vaccination rates

We know what needs to be done: beating measles means giving more than 95% of the population two doses of measles vaccine.

The vaccine is recommended across Europe and is freely available. There are some great European examples of countries hitting their immunisation targets.  

Malta has 99% measles vaccine uptake. This is close to perfect given that a very small number of people in any country are too sick to be vaccinated. (Indeed, getting beyond 95% vaccine uptake helps to protect those who are too young or too weak to be immunised.)

Poland, Lithuania, Portugal, Spain, Finland, Estonia, Iceland, Sweden – there are plenty of star pupils in our own neighbourhood from which we can learn.

See European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) for more and check out their interactive Measles Atlas showing measles vaccine uptake

Measles is over ‘Down Under’

There are good examples from further afield too. In the mid-1990s, Australia made a major commitment to increasing vaccination rates. They drew up a seven-point plan which was designed to make it easier to vaccinate and encourage parents to follow medical advice on immunisation.

Australia faced plenty of challenges in increasing immunisation rates including a small but vocal anti-vaccine movement, hard-to-reach populations.

Last year the World Health Organisation confirmed that Australia, along with a number of other countries in the Western-Pacific Region, had eliminated measles.

Alas, we know that even countries that have been measles free for extended periods cannot afford to grow complacent.

The US serves as a cautionary tale of a country where measles was fading from popular memory, only to make an unwelcome return.

Measles elimination in Europe is achievable. The longer it takes, the more suffering will be endured along the way.