77 000 Europeans fall sick every year with vector-borne diseases

Copenhagen, 2 April 2014

People living in the WHO European Region do not escape diseases carried by vectors. On World Health Day, 7 April 2014, WHO calls on everyone to protect themselves from vector-borne diseases.

Mosquito, sandfly and tick bites passed diseases to more than 1.5 million Europeans between 1990 and 2010.

  • Outbreaks of exotic diseases, such as chikungunya, are now reported in the WHO European Region.
  • Locally transmitted cases of dengue fever, absent from Europe for more than 60 years, have reappeared.
  • Despite rapid progress in eliminating locally transmitted malaria, localized outbreaks were reported in recent years and numbers of imported cases are still high.
  • The health impact and geographic distribution of some long-established diseases in the Region, such as leishmaniasis and Lyme disease, are growing.

“There is a clear warning signal to the European Region that diseases carried by vectors may spread and intensify in the years ahead. Globalized travel and trade, as well as Europe’s increased urbanization and changing weather patterns, are making this possible,” says Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “History shows that, when efforts to prevent and control spread are focused and robust, we can contain or even get rid of these diseases. Otherwise, they can come back and risk settling again in Europe. This is not the time to lower our guard.”

Threat of diseases carried by mosquitoes

Travellers returning from disease-endemic countries are bringing malaria, dengue and chikungunya back to the Region.

While many Europeans consider malaria a remote disease, 5000 cases were imported into Europe in 2013. In contrast, the number of reported locally acquired cases has dropped dramatically: from 90 712 in 1995 to only 37 in 2013. Imported cases and recent outbreaks show malaria’s potential to resettle in formerly free areas, jeopardizing the Region’s goal of eliminating the disease by 2015.

Globalization, the increasing volume of trade and travel, continuing urbanization and environmental/climate change have contributed to the introduction and establishment of the Aedes genus of mosquitoes – a vector for dengue and chikungunya – in the WHO European Region. Where these invasive mosquitoes have been established or re-established, there is a risk of local transmission of these diseases.

The threat of an outbreak of dengue fever now exists in Europe; in 2010 local transmission was reported for the first time in France and Croatia, and imported cases were detected in three other European countries. In 2012, the first outbreak of dengue occurred in the Madeira Islands, Portugal, resulting in over 2000 cases. Mosquito vectors of chikungunya caused the first European outbreak in Italy in 2007, with almost 200 cases.

Three phases of vector and disease control

Vector surveillance and control, and the early detection of cases in human beings are vital to prevent the re-introduction and re-establishment of mosquitoes, and the spread of the diseases they carry. This has three main phases.

  1. Control the vector. This means preventing the introduction, establishment and spread of the vector, as well as its early detection and containment. Risk communication and community mobilization are key.
  2. Prevent the disease. Where insect vectors have been introduced and are established, surveillance and control measures for invasive mosquitoes, ticks or sandflies should be taken, in coordination with surveillance for disease in the population at risk, in order to prevent outbreaks.
  3. Limit the spread. To avoid large outbreaks, especially in newly affected areas, public education, health professionals’ awareness and adequate laboratory facilities are crucial for the early diagnosis and effective treatment of vector-borne diseases.

Europe’s common framework to fight mosquito-carried diseases

Late in 2013, European countries endorsed a new seven-year framework for the European Region (1) to improve the surveillance and control of invasive mosquitoes and the prevention and control of re-emerging diseases. The WHO Regional Office for Europe works with partners – including the European Commission, the European Mosquito Control Association (EMCA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) – to increase awareness of the problem and support countries in tackling it.

“The Regional Office’s call for action comes at the right moment, given the increasing vulnerability of the European Region, in part associated with increased travel and trade and warmer temperatures and extreme weather events, which justify growing public health concern and underline the cross-border nature of the re-emergence of vector-borne diseases,” says Guénaël Rodier, Director of the Division of Communicable Diseases, Health Security and Environment at the WHO Regional Office for Europe. “The regional framework provides decision-makers with a clear picture of existing and emerging threats from Aedes mosquitoes, to help countries develop or update their operational plans, harmonize approaches and coordinate cross-border actions.”

The framework pays particular attention to engaging health care workers in detecting and treating diseases new to them, as well as encouraging members of the general public to spot the arrival of new mosquitoes, make the domestic environment unsuitable for mosquito survival and protect themselves from insect bites.

Notes to editors

  • World Health Day is celebrated on 7 April every year to mark the anniversary of the founding of WHO in 1948. Each year a theme is selected that highlights a priority area of public health. The Day provides an opportunity for people in every community to take part in activities that can lead to better health. The topic for 2014 is vector-borne diseases.
  • WHO is the United Nations agency responsible for human health. One of six regional offices, the WHO Regional Office for Europe is based in Copenhagen, Denmark. It serves 53 countries stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, with a population of almost 900 million.
  • The WHO Regional Office for Europe’s website offers fact sheets on vector-borne diseases and further information.

For further information, contact:

Cristiana Salvi
Communications Officer
Division of Communicable Diseases, Health Security and Environment
WHO Regional Office for Europe
UN City, Marmorvej 51
DK-2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark
Tel.: +45 45 33 68 37
Email: csa@euro.who.int 

Bettina Menne
Programme Manager, Climate change, green health services, sustainable development
Division of Communicable Diseases, Health Security and Environment
WHO European Centre for Environment and Health
Platz der Vereinten Nationen 1
D-53113 Bonn, Germany
Tel.: + 49 228 81 50 422
Email: menneb@ecehbonn.euro.who.int