Measles outbreaks continue: be vaccinated before travelling and attending large public events

Countries in the WHO European Region continue to battle large measles outbreaks, which are spreading not only within the Region but also to other WHO regions. As of the end of May 2011, 38 European countries had reported more than 12 000 measles cases to WHO/Europe. In many countries, the number of measles cases reported from January to May 2011 exceeds the total for the previous year. More than 90% of the cases reported this year occurred in 8 countries: Belgium, France, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the United Kingdom and Uzbekistan.

Preventing measles spread at large public events

As the measles virus is very infectious and droplets can remain in the air for hours, preventing the disease through vaccination is especially important before travel and attendance at large public gatherings, including social events, sports competitions and political, religious or cultural gatherings.

Such events can help spread measles because they involve intensive contact between large numbers of people. Even if the host community has high immunization coverage, the influx of large numbers of people can increase the risk of potential importation, leading to the spread of measles among un- or undervaccinated people. (The undervaccinated have received less than two doses of measles vaccine.)

Vaccination before travel (particularly to attend mass gatherings) prevents vaccine-preventable diseases from being either exported to or imported from other countries.

WHO/Europe and national public health authorities strongly recommend that all people travelling to large public events check to make sure that they are up to date on their measles vaccinations. WHO further recommends vaccination of adolescents and young adults who have not had two doses of measles vaccine. In addition to measles vaccination, people should check to make sure they are protected against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, poliomyelitis, rubella and mumps.

People at risk

Anyone who has not been vaccinated is at risk of being infected with measles, as shown by the wide range of people affected by outbreaks: from infants (aged less than 12 months) to adults aged over 50 years. So far in 2011, outbreaks in the European Region have most affected infants, children aged 1–4 years and young adults aged 15–29. Most patients had not been vaccinated with two doses of measles vaccine.

Infected adolescents and adults can spread measles to infants, who are too young to be vaccinated. Children aged under 5 years are at the highest risk for complications of measles, including pneumonia and acute encephalitis, which can lead to death. In addition, complications are common among adults aged over 20. Deaths in adolescents and adults in France have been reported this year.

The measles virus will continue to spread as long as people are not vaccinated against the disease. Being vaccinated on time, according to a country’s immunization schedule, is vital.