28 April, 2011

Major Measles Outbreak in Europe, Failure to Vaccinate Seen as Cause


The World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that measles cases are occurring at an alarming rate across Europe, with 6,500 cases having been reported in 33 countries between January to March of this year. France alone has seen 4,937 cases in this time period, including 1 death; France reported 5,000 cases during all of 2010. Similarly, Belgium has already reported 155 cases for this year, compared to the mere 40 cases for all of last year. Outbreaks have also been reported in Germany, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey and Britain.

WHO says that the surge in cases is due to not enough children having received vaccination, especially those who are now between the ages of 10 and 19. As a result of the accumulation of unvaccinated children over the years, the herd immunity for the population has been lost and the disease can spread quickly among the susceptible, causing severe illness and sometimes death. When herd immunity is lost, those who are too young to be vaccinated are at much higher risk of catching the disease.  Indeed, 30% of France's cases occurred in children too young for the vaccine. Officials speculate that as a result of people not seeing the disease over the years, especially in early 2000, many have forgotten or do not know how severe measles can be and have failed to vaccinate their children. Some European communities do not vaccinate for religious or philosophical reasons, and migrant populations moving across borders may not receive vaccinations. Many have also blamed Wakefield’s completely discredited study in the 90s that linked the MMR vaccine to autism as a major contributor to the drops in vaccination rate.

Given the current capacity for global travel, such trends are worrisome and can lead to large-scale outbreaks. Health officials in New Jersey recently warned patrons of a Livingston restaurant that they may have been exposed to measles from two unvaccinated young women from France.  They visited the restaurant on April 10th and developed symptoms three days later. Similarly, nine measles cases in Utah were recently linked to an unvaccinated person who contracted the disease in Poland. Officials estimate the individual may have exposed up to 1,000 individuals earlier this month.

Measles, also known as rubeola, is a highly infectious viral illness spread by contact with droplets from the nose, mouth or throat of an infected person as a result of sneezing or coughing. Its symptoms include fever, coughing, red eyes, and a generalized rash all over the body.  Complications include pneumonia, acute encephalitis, corneal scarring, and even death. It is estimated that 90% of individuals without immunity who are exposed with the virus become infected. Immunization for measles is administered in the MMR vaccine that also targets mumps and rubella. WHO recommends 2 doses of MMR for all children.

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