'Tragic' deaths feared as measles cases surge in Europe
Alok Gupta

Measles elimination efforts in Europe have declined considerably in the last year, raising fears of frequent outbreaks, leading to "tragic" deaths, warned a report released on Thursday.   

Having previously eliminated the disease, Albania, Czech Republic, Greece and the UK have re-established measles transmission, the report prepared by the European Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination (RVC) said.

"Re-establishment of measles transmission is concerning," Dr. Günter Pfaff, chair of the RVC, said. If high immunization coverage is not achieved and sustained in every community, both children and adults will suffer unnecessarily, and some will tragically die, he added.

Measles – a life-threatening but preventable disease – still remains endemic to 12 countries in the region, the report said. The trend has continued unabated in the current year, with 90,000 cases reported in the first half of the year compared to 84,462 total cases in 2018.

Austria and Switzerland were the only countries that achieved measles elimination status, stopping the endemic transmission for at least 36 months. The independent review report was prepared based on data provided by the 53 member countries of the European region.

The frequent outbreaks have prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to take emergency measures, mobilizing the technical, financial and human resources needed to support the affected countries of the European region.

"Through activation of the emergency response, the WHO has increased its focus on measles elimination and upgraded its action," said Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe.

"This is the time and opportunity to address any underlying health system, social determinants and societal challenges that may have allowed this deadly virus to persist in this region," Jakab added. 

Mistrust over vaccines

A growing suspicion over vaccines has impacted immunization drives in European countries. The situation has turned alarming with over 500,000 children in the region still unprotected against measles, according to UNICEF.  

The anti-vaccination messages have been further amplified by more than 400 internet websites and social media accounts. 

Allegations that vaccines cause autism and changes in the neurological system have scared parents to the extent that 100,000 American children have not received shots required to combat 14 diseases, an estimate by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) revealed. 

Leading health organizations, concerned over misinformation over vaccines, are urging social media giants to act on the issue. 

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus lauded Pinterest's initiative protecting public health by only providing evidence-based information about vaccines to its users. 

"We hope to see other social media platforms around the world following Pinterest's lead," he said on Thursday.