Measles & pertussis outbreaks: ‘We must protect our infants’

Editorial Team

Editorial Team

April 24th, 2024

Editorial Team

‘Vulnerable young children are hit hardest as Europe records thousands of cases of vaccine-preventable diseases’

Thousands of babies have been infected by pertussis (whooping cough) over the past eighteen months amid a surge in cases across the EU. The European Centre for Disease Prevention & Control (ECDC) officially reported more than 2,600 for 2022, but says preliminary data show a greater than 10-fold increase in 2023 and 2024.

In 2023, an estimated 35,000 cases of pertussis were reported with 25,000 recorded in the first months of 2024. The highest number of cases is among infants who were not fully vaccinated, often because they were too young to receive their vaccine. This is the age group most likely to be hospitalised.

Eleven deaths were recorded in 2023 and 2024 combined.

‘These are preventable deaths,’ said Sabrina Bacci, Head of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunisation, ECDC. ‘We must protect our infants by ensuring all recommended pertussis-containing vaccines are given on time. Vaccination during pregnancy can also protect young infants.’

Speaking during a press conference to mark European Immunization Week, Dr Bacci said the pertussis vaccine is safe and effective for babies and their mothers during pregnancy. Mothers can pass antibodies on during pregnancy, providing newborn babies with protection during their early weeks and months of life. However, uptake of maternal pregnancy vaccination is low to moderate.

Dr Andrea Ammon, Director of the ECDC, said it was disheartening to see outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in Europe, despite vaccines’ well-documented safety and effectiveness over many decades. ‘Vaccines have protected many generations, and we should ensure that this continues to be the case,’ she said.

WATCH: Baby Lore was born in perfect health. 83 days later she died from pertussis after spending 18 days in the intensive care unit.

Meanwhile, the number of measles cases began to rise in 2023, and this trend has continued in several EU Member States, according to the ECDC. Between March 2023 and the end of February 2024, at least 5,770 measles cases have been reported, including at least five deaths.

The highest risk is amongst infants below one year of age, as they are too young to be vaccinated and should therefore be protected by community immunity. Measles spreads very easily, therefore, high vaccination coverage, of at least 95% of the population vaccinated with two doses of measles-containing vaccine, is essential to interrupt transmission.

An animated GIF that shows one measles patient can infect 16-18 others

The ECDC said more work is needed to ensure no one is left behind by immunisation programmes, especially amongst vulnerable and underserved populations such as refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and other groups.

European Immunization Week serves as a key occasion to underscore the importance of vaccination for overall health and wellness across all stages of life. It’s also a chance to emphasise that vaccines stand as one of the most remarkable achievements in public health of the 20th century.

Read more: Measles on the rise in Europe (again)