Immunization and the paradox of success

33 countries from Ireland to Tajikistan take part in European Immunization Week 2008

Copenhagen, 21 April 2008

For immediate release

In 2007, western European countries recorded more measles cases than their neighbours to the east and all are becoming vulnerable to the disease, as 33 countries roll into action for the third European Immunization Week, 21–27 April.

“In 2007, 60% of measles cases across the WHO European Region occurred in western Europe,” said Dr Marc Danzon, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “This dangerous development is attributable to a combination of vaccine scepticism born of ideological positions and, ironically, of the success of vaccination programmes in earlier generations.”

Noting that immunization remained one of the most successful and cost-effective health systems interventions in medical history, he said: “People in western Europe have little memory of the devastating toll in death and disability taken by vaccine-preventable diseases so, paradoxically, this has led to an ominous shift in risk perception from the disease itself to the vaccine.”

While average immunization coverage rates are relatively high – over 90% – in this vast Region of 53 countries, full protection can be achieved only by 95% coverage rates. High immunity is the best defence against these diseases, preventing them gaining a foothold in the community.

Further, regional averages mask inequities both within and between countries. These inequities give rise to stark statistics: in the European Region, 32 000 children still die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases and some 600 000 infants miss their basic vaccine doses of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP). In addition, a health agenda crowded with priorities is endangering vaccination programmes Region-wide. “Member States cannot afford to miss the vaccination goal,” said Dr Danzon. “European Immunization Week is about helping them keep a steady focus on it.”

Observing that all countries had pockets of people who fall through the vaccine safety net, the WHO Regional Director for Europe said that health systems must be strengthened to remove barriers such as lack of information, distance, and cost, to ensure coverage across the board. “It is the right of all children – of everyone – to be immunized,” he stressed.

Particular emphasis must be placed on reaching the marginalized, such as migrant populations, displaced, poor and isolated people, and children in institutions.

But the WHO European Region can boast many real success stories.

  • Deadly diseases, such as smallpox, have been eradicated.
  • The Region has been polio-free since 2002.
  • Measles cases are down by more than 90% from over 200 000 cases 10 years ago.
  • Twenty-nine Member States have already achieved the measles elimination target set for 2010.
  • Forty-five countries have carried out universal hepatitis B immunization programmes, while the remainder provide it for well-defined risk groups.
  • Thirty-seven countries have introduced the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine against bacterial meningitis into routine immunization programmes.
  • The average immunization coverage rates in the Region are of over 90%.
  • All Member States have made advances in setting up quality assurance systems to guarantee the safety and quality of vaccines.

As part of the official programme to launch European Immunization Week, the WHO Regional Director will act as host to Her Royal Highness (HRH) Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. HRH Crown Princess Mary, Patron of the WHO Regional Office for Europe since 2006, will visit health care facilities with Dr Danzon where immunization activities are under way. Together they will also address members of the diplomatic corps, health officials and the media.

European Immunization Week 2008 aims to help Member States fulfil their obligations of universal immunization. Using a regional guiding framework, they analyse and address deficiencies in their country immunization programmes. European Immunization Week is a Region-wide initiative, led and coordinated by the WHO Regional Office for Europe, with partner organizations contributing to action at the national level.

Activities in the European Region reflect similar efforts taking place on the other side of the Atlantic with Vaccination Week in the Americas coordinated by the WHO Regional Office for the Americas.

Prevent. Protect. Immunize.

For more information, contact:

Press information:

Ms Liuba Negru
Press and Media Relations Officer
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Scherfigsvej 8, DK-2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark
Tel.: +45 39 17 13 44. Mobile: +45 20 45 92 74