Measles virus continues to spread in European Region: WHO urgently calls on countries to step up response

Member States in the WHO European Region continue to struggle with the spread of measles, with more than 26 000 confirmed cases reported from January to July 2011. WHO/Europe remains highly concerned about the situation and continues to work with Member States, providing recommendations, technical support and feedback, on the Region-wide epidemic. WHO/Europe urgently calls on countries to step up their response activities; it will provide regular updates and remain in regular contact with them while the epidemic persists.

From January to July 2011, 40 of the 53 countries in the Region reported 26 025 measles cases, with the largest burden of outbreaks falling on western Europe. The actual number of cases is estimated to be higher, however, due to underreporting and delays in reporting. France reported the highest number of cases (14 025), and 11 deaths have been reported in the Region, with 80% in people older than 10 years. The predominant genotype circulating in the European Region is D4, the same endemic genotype found in the United Kingdom in 2008. This confirms that a truly Region-wide epidemic is under way.

The spread of the measles virus across the European Region is not confined to certain countries or subregions. All Member States are at-risk of importation. With rapid global movement of populations, the virus has also spread outside the Region, leading to outbreaks in Canada and the United States.

In response to these outbreaks, Member States are strengthening their surveillance activities according to national and regional guidelines, and some have changed their immunization programmes, including modifying immunization schedules to address gaps. Social mobilization activities and advocacy for immunization among the general population and the health sector have been implemented in all countries. This work must be accelerated and done in a standardized way to interrupt spread and immunize people not protected against measles.

WHO/Europe reminds all Member States of the key strategies for measles and rubella elimination as a way to prevent outbreaks and to control ongoing outbreaks:

  • achieving at least 95% immunization coverage with two doses of measles-containing vaccine in routine immunization (including at subnational levels);
  • providing a new opportunity for un- or underimmunized people, through either routine programmes or supplemental immunization activities;
  • strengthening surveillance to detect, confirm and respond to every case; and
  • increasing awareness and knowledge about immunization in health care workers and the general public, to increase demand for vaccination.