LONDON (Reuters) – More than 34,000 people across Europe have contracted measles in the first two months of 2019, with the vast majority of cases in Ukraine, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday, urging authorities to ensure vaccination vulnerable people.
FILE PHOTO: A flask of measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is pictured at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Washington, USA, March 20, 2019. REUTERS / Lindsey Wasson / File Photo
The number of deaths among 34,300 cases registered in 42 countries in the WHO European region reached 13, with the virus killing people in Ukraine – which is suffering from a measles epidemic – as well as in Romania and Albania. The risk is that the outbreaks continue to spread, the WHO warned.
"If the outbreak response is not timely and comprehensive, the virus will find more pockets of vulnerable individuals and potentially spread to other countries inside and outside the region," the statement said.
"Every opportunity should be used to vaccinate susceptible children, adolescents and adults."
Measles is a highly contagious disease that can kill and cause blindness, deafness or brain damage. It can be prevented with two doses of an effective vaccine, but – partly because of pockets of unvaccinated people – it is currently spreading in outbreaks in many parts of the world, including the United States, the Philippines and Thailand.
In Europe, most cases of measles so far in 2019 are in Ukraine, which saw more than 25,000 people infected in the first two months of the year.
There is no specific antiviral treatment for measles, and vaccination is the only way to prevent it, WHO said. Most cases occur in unvaccinated or under-vaccinated people.
He added that although the region had the highest estimated coverage for the second dose of measles vaccination in 2017 – some 90% – some countries had problems, including declining or stagnant vaccine coverage in some cases, low coverage in some groups and gaps in immunity in older populations.
WHO urged national health authorities throughout the region to focus efforts to ensure that all population groups have access to vaccines.
"The impact on public health will persist until outbreaks are under control," he said, adding that health officials should "identify who has been forgotten in the past and reach them with the vaccines they need."
A report by UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund, found last month that more than 20 million children worldwide have been vaccinated against measles worldwide in the last eight years, setting the stage for dangerous outbreaks.
Report of Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Heinrich