Measles outbreaks continue across Europe: WHO says, get vaccinated

Countries in the WHO European Region continue to fight large measles outbreaks, which continue to spread between countries and to other regions of the world. 

Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have reported measles cases in 2011. Turkey recently reported an outbreak in Istanbul, in addition to cases linked to a large outbreak in Bulgaria in 2010. In addition, small outbreaks have occurred in the Russian Federation (in Krasnoyarsk and Tomsk), linked to Uzbekistan. Since 2008, measles outbreaks have been a serious challenge to France. France reported over 5000 cases in 2010, and preliminary data from 2011 indicate that this trend is continuing, with nearly 1000 cases in January alone. Such epidemics have sparked smaller outbreaks in other countries, both within and outside the Region.

Protect yourself and others before you travel

The measles virus spreads very easily, and these outbreaks will continue as long as there are people who have not been immunized or not immunized on time (according to the routine immunization schedule).  

Genotyping of current outbreaks has been extremely helpful in defining the sources of importation and the spread of the virus. WHO/Europe also uses it to determine which measles viruses are imported from other parts of the world and which are spreading routinely in the Region. This is critical in monitoring progress towards eliminating the disease. Genotype analysis of the outbreaks confirms the update above.

Acting as the WHO Regional Committee for Europe in September 2010, Member States adopted a resolution to renew their commitment and accelerate action to eliminate measles and rubella and prevent congenital rubella syndrome in the European Region by 2015. Member States thus clearly showed that they understand the significance of elimination, appreciate the severity of the challenges and acknowledge the need to strengthen efforts for elimination. By adopting 2015 as the target date, Member States and WHO/Europe each accepted their roles in increasing immunization coverage, strengthening surveillance and advocating immunization until the transmission of indigenous measles virus is interrupted in the Region. It is crucial that Member States and WHO/Europe act on this commitment, to stop costly and life-threatening outbreaks.

About measles

Measles is a dangerous and highly infectious disease caused by a virus. The first sign of measles is usually a high fever, which begins about 10–12 days after exposure to the virus, and lasts 4–7 days. A runny nose, cough, red and watery eyes and small white spots inside the cheeks can develop in the initial stage. After several days, a rash erupts, usually on the face and upper neck. Over about three days, the rash spreads, eventually reaching the hands and feet. The rash lasts for 5–6 days and then fades. On average, the rash occurs 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Most measles-related deaths result from complications associated with the disease, which are more common in children under the age of 5 and adults over the age of 20. The most serious complications include blindness, encephalitis, severe diarrhoea and related dehydration, ear infections and severe respiratory infections such as pneumonia. Among populations with high levels of malnutrition and a lack of adequate health care, up to 10% of measles cases result in death.

Measles remains one of the leading causes of death among young children globally, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine.

Need for up-to-date vaccinations

WHO/Europe gives very high priority to measles elimination. It urges countries to remain vigilant and take timely prevention and control measures to stop the spread of and eliminate the disease within their borders and to stop exporting the virus to other countries. The annual European Immunization Week (EIW), scheduled for 23–30 April in 2011, gives the community, health workers, decision-makers and the broad range of stakeholders and partners an opportunity to help promote immunization.