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

Copenhagen, 25 October 2011

Member States in the WHO European Region continue to struggle with the uninterrupted spread of measles, reporting more than 26 000 confirmed cases in the first seven months of 2011. This represents a 276% increase from a comparable period in 2007.

“We call on countries to respond to this Region-wide epidemic,” said Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “The Region has set the goal of eliminating measles by 2015, but these outbreaks pose a serious threat to that goal. Measles is not the harmless infection that some people seem to believe it is, and where we can prevent illness and death, we must do so.”

Last week in Istanbul, Turkey, WHO/Europe hosted a meeting attended by more than 40 Member States to review the outbreaks and share best practices to control and prevent them. WHO works continuously with Member States, providing recommendations, technical support and feedback.

From January to July 2011, 40 of the 53 countries in the Region reported 26 025 measles cases, with the largest burden falling on western Europe. Nevertheless, the actual number of cases is estimated to be higher, due to delays in reporting and to underreporting. Measles has led to 9 deaths in the Region this year, 7 of them in people over ten years old. The predominant genotype circulating in the European Region is D4, which has been endemic in some countries since 2008.

Although primarily active in western Europe, this is truly a Region-wide epidemic, and the spread of the measles virus across the Region is not confined to certain countries or subregions. All Member States are at risk of importation. With rapid global movement, the virus has also spread outside the Region.

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

France reported the highest number of cases (14 025) for the first seven months of 2011. In response to the outbreak, France launched a nationwide communication campaign on 13 October. It provides health care professionals with information about the outbreak and national recommendations on measles vaccine, and targets:

  • people aged 15–30 years (the priority age group), encouraging them to check their immunization status and to be vaccinated if they have not had two doses of measles-containing vaccine; and
  • mothers aged 40–60 years, recommending that they check their children’s immunization cards and stressing the importance of two doses of vaccine for their children.

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

  • 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 to be vaccinated, 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 the demand.

For further information, please contact:

Dr Dragan Jankovic
Vaccine-preventable Diseases and Immunization
Tel.: +45 39 17 12 58, +45 21 73 07 15 (mobile)

Viv Taylor Gee
Communications Adviser
Tel: +45 39 17 12 31, +45 22 72 36 91 (mobile)