As of October 2023, the World Health Organization’s European Region is confronting a severe public health challenge: a dramatic surge in measles cases, with over 30,000 infections reported across 40 Member States. This alarming increase, more than 30 times the 941 cases reported in 2022, has led to nearly 21,000 hospitalizations and 5 measles-related deaths. This resurgence underscores the urgent need for comprehensive vaccination efforts.
The outbreak has affected individuals of all ages, with children aged 1 to 4 years and adults over 20 years experiencing significant impacts. The decline in vaccination rates, a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been a major factor contributing to this crisis. The national coverage for the first dose of the measles-containing vaccine decreased from 96% in 2019 to 93% in 2022, while the coverage for the second dose dropped from 92% to 91%. Consequently, an estimated 1.8 million infants in the region did not receive their measles vaccinations between 2020 and 2022.
The WHO has emphasized that “vaccination is the only effective measure to protect children and the broader population from this potentially dangerous disease.” The resurgence in countries where measles had been previously eliminated as an endemic disease highlights the critical importance of maintaining high vaccination rates. Countries that have achieved measles elimination are now at risk of experiencing large and disruptive outbreaks if vaccination rates fall below the necessary threshold. The organization also noted that with COVID-19 travel restrictions being lifted, many more communities will be at risk as unvaccinated populations travel throughout Europe.
In response to this escalating situation, intensified routine immunization activities and catch-up campaigns are being initiated across several countries in the region. WHO/Europe, in collaboration with its partners, is actively supporting countries with significant outbreaks. Efforts include conducting thorough case investigations, vaccinating susceptible individuals, implementing infection control in healthcare settings, raising public awareness, addressing concerns, enhancing disease surveillance, and planning and executing outbreak response immunization strategies.
The overarching goal is to eliminate both measles and rubella across the region. On the WHO’s official website, the organization states, “To regain progress towards measles elimination, it is imperative that countries achieve and maintain over 95% coverage with two doses of the measles-containing vaccine. Attaining high routine vaccination coverage and closing any immunity gaps must therefore remain top priorities for all countries.”
This concerted effort is crucial for safeguarding public health and preventing the spread of this highly contagious disease.