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Surge in measles cases in Europe, warns WHO

media A doctor prepares a measles vaccine during a consultation in Bucharest, Romania Daniel Mihailescu/AFP

Europe has seen a resurgence of measles and the World Health Organization is warning that the continent is losing ground in eliminating the disease. Countries are being urged to step up vaccination efforts.

The WHO reports 89,994 cases of measles in 48 European countries in the first six months of 2019 – more than double the number in the same period in 2018, and already more than the total number of cases reported in 2018.

With more than 84,000 cases, Ukraine accounted for the vast majority of the cases, followed by Kazakhstan and Georgia. In February, Ukraine's health ministry said eight people had died of the disease.

Vaccine refusal

The highly contagious airborne disease can be fatal, especially for babies and elderly people, and can cause complications which include blindness and miscarriage for pregnant women.

It is preventable with two doses of the vaccine, but there is no effective treatment once people are infected. The WHO says vaccine refusal is partially to blame for the rise in cases.

"Misinformation about vaccines is as contagious and dangerous as the diseases it helps to spread," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a statement this week.

In some developed countries, measles vaccination rates dropped sharply following the publication of a flawed study in the late 1990s that linked the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. Health officials have struggled to debunk misperceptions about the vaccine's safety ever since.

Four countries Albania, the Czech Republic, Greece and the UK have now lost their status as having eliminated measles. Measles is considered eliminated when there is no endemic disease transmission for 12 months or more in a specific geographic area.

Measles is considered endemic in 12 countries, including Germany and France. After a drop in vaccination rates, measles immunisation (in the combined MMR vaccine) was made mandatory for children under two-years-old in January 2018.

The WHO estimated about 110,000 people died from measles worldwide in 2017, mostly children under the age of five.

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