February 8, 2019 3:55 pm

Measles cases tripled in Europe last year — the highest it’s been in a decade

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The number of recorded measles cases in Europe more than tripled between 2017 and 2018, marking the highest it’s been in a decade, the World Health Organization said.

According to newly released data from the WHO, in 2018, more than 82,000 people were infected with the disease and 72 people died in Europe. In 2017, there were more than 25,000 measles cases in Europe and 42 deaths.

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“The total number of people infected with the virus in 2018 was the highest this decade,” the WHO said in a statement.

At the same time, the agency said a record number of children are getting vaccinated for the disease — offering hope that the rise in infections may not last.

But the increase of measles cases could be due to a growing number of pockets where parents are refusing vaccination for their children, the WHO added.

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“Progress has been uneven between and within countries, leaving increasing clusters of susceptible individuals unprotected, and resulting in a record number of people affected by the virus in 2018,” it said in a statement.

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that can cause hearing loss and brain disorders in children, and in severe cases, can kill.

Vaccination coverage needs to be around 95 per cent to prevent the virus from circulating in communities.

The countries with the highest numbers of measles cases in 2018 in the European region included:

  1. Ukraine: 52,218 cases
  2. Serbia: 5,075 cases
  3. Israel: 2,919 cases
  4. France: 2,913cases
  5. Italy: 2,513 cases

Vaccination rates for measles, mumps and rubella in Ukraine fell sharply over a number of years during its conflict with Russia, according to the BBC.

In many countries, anti-vaccine campaigners seek to dissuade parents from getting their children immunized, despite strong scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective.

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In Italy, the co-ruling anti-establishment Five Star Movement has questioned the safety of some vaccines and loudly denounced efforts to make vaccinations mandatory.

Heidi Larson, a specialist in vaccines and public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told Reuters the increase in cases was a “wake-up call on the importance of building confidence in vaccination.”

The agency said it will continue working to improve measles vaccination rates.
“We cannot achieve healthier populations globally, as promised in WHO’s vision for the coming five years, if we do not work locally. We must do more and do it better to protect each and every person from diseases that can be easily avoided,” Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO regional director for Europe, said in a statement.

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Canada’s measles vaccination rate

In Canada, Statistics Canada reports that 89 per cent of children under two years old had received the MMR vaccine, which vaccinates for mumps, measles and rubella. It didn’t list reasons for why 11 per cent hadn’t been vaccinated.

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Julie Bettinger, a professor at the Vaccine Evaluation Center of the University of British Columbia, said there are pockets in Canada that have almost a 100 per cent immunization rate, and others have lower.

She said it could be because of a multitude of reasons, but noted that the measles vaccine, in particular, unfortunately, has a bad reputation.

— With files from Reuters and Global News’ Rebecca Joseph 

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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