Is Europe winning the war on measles?

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

January 18th, 2013

Gary Finnegan

‘After a dramatic increase in measles cases which began in 2009, there is growing optimism among European health authorities that efforts to contain the disease are bearing fruit.’

Is-Europe-winning-the-war-on-measlesThe number of children in Europe infected with measles rose by almost 500% between 2009 and 2011, sparking a vigorous campaign to promote uptake of measles vaccines in an effort to curb its spread.

Now, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) says measles cases in Europe have returned to ‘pre-outbreak levels’, although this progress will have to continue across the continent if the 2015 measles elimination target is to be reached.

Cautious optimism

There were more than 37,000 cases in the EU per annum at the peak but the corresponding figure for 2012 was 7,016. Most of those affected had not been vaccinated, according to the ECDC.

Individually, 12 countries had less than one case of measles per million population in the last 12 months, low enough to meet the WHO elimination target set for 2015. However, five – France, Italy, Romania, Spain and the United Kingdom – accounted for 94% of the reported cases.

Public health experts in the UK are optimistic that this year will see fewer measles cases than in previous years now that MMR vaccination rates have been restored to the levels seen in the 1990s. More than nine out of ten parents in the UK now choose to have their children vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR).

Positive trends

As we reported last May, there were signs as early as the first quarter of 2012 that the measles crisis was abating. That trend has continued, according to the ECDC’s latest Measles and Rubella Monitoring report.

There are also signs that the rubella outbreak in Romania is receding. After recording more than 24,000 cases last year, official figures show the epidemic peaked in March 2012, with just 24 cases reported between August and October 2012.

Across the EU, 16 of the 26 countries with national rubella surveillance systems met their elimination targets, with ten of those reporting no cases at all in the past 12 months. Rubella and measles vaccination are generally given as part of the combined MMR vaccine so rubella statistics can give some indication of MMR uptake.

Outside Europe, the picture is less encouraging. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says a major measles outbreak in Pakistan killed more than 300 children last year, compared to 64 the previous year.