Why is measles coming back?

Editorial Team

Editorial Team

July 1st, 2024

Editorial Team

‘Measles has returned, but vaccines can protect children against one of the world’s most contagious diseases ’

The measles virus is highly infectious. In fact, someone who catches measles can pass it to as many as eighteen others – unless those other people are vaccinated or previously recovered from infection.

Read: Measles symptoms

This is called the R0 and is often used by scientists and doctors as a measure of how easily viruses or bacteria can spread ‘naturally’ (when there is no immunity from prior infections or from immunisation).

For measles, R0 is between 12 and 18. Flu, by comparison, has an estimated R0 of between 1 and 2. This makes measles difficult to eliminate.

Read: What is R0?

Health authorities around the world recommend two doses of measles vaccine to prevent outbreaks. If more than 95% of people in a community are vaccinated twice against measles, the virus cannot find new people to infect.

However, while most people in Europe are vaccinated against measles, many regions are falling short of the 95% target. That is why measles is coming back.

In fact, everywhere that vaccination rates are too low, measles returns. Globally, measles causes more than 100,000 deaths per year. In Europe, the number of cases is on the rise, with outbreaks reported in Romania, Austria and the Netherlands, among others.

Read: Measles killed 136,200 people last year 

Most cases are in children who have not been vaccinated. Experts are particularly concerned about infants as they are at high risk of requiring hospitalisation if infected with the virus.

From 2021 to 2022, there was a 43% increase in deaths from measles. This followed the COVID-19 pandemic, during which time cases of all infectious diseases fell due to reduced social interaction. Vaccine uptake also dipped in some countries in that period.

Read: Measles on the rise in Europe (again)

There are many reasons why a child might miss out on their recommended vaccines. These include

  1. Their age: children usually vaccinated after the age of 12 months.  
  2. Their health: children with immune system problems are often not vaccinated.
  3. Complacency: parents sometimes do not vaccinate children because they do not consider it a priority.
  4. Access to vaccination: for a minority of people in Europe, convenient access to free vaccination can be a challenge.
  5. Confidence: a small proportion of people overestimate the risks of vaccination – incorrectly believing the downsides to be greater than the benefits.

The vast majority of scientists and doctors are clear that the benefits of vaccination outweigh any risks. If you have questions about this, ask your healthcare professional for advice.

Measles is back, but parents and doctors know how to protect children and the wider community. In Europe, safe and effective measles vaccines are widely available through publicly-funded health systems.

If more than 95% of people have their recommended measles vaccine, our communities can be measles-free.