Europe experienced a 400% increase in measles cases in 2017, compared to previous year, the World Health Organization has warned.
The global health body has ranked the UK just outside the top 10, at number 11, for the highest cases of measles during 2017.
The UK recorded nearly 300 cases but no deaths last year, which saw an initial increase beginning in the spring and continuing over the summer before a spike in November and December.
However, in contrast to most of the rest of the continent, last year marked a decrease from the 571 measles cases and one death recorded in 2016.
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Across Europe, the disease affected 21,315 people in total and caused 35 deaths in 2017, following a record low of 5,273 cases in 2016, according to a report published by the WHO today.
The WHO Regional Office for Europe has released new data for 2017 one day ahead of a health ministerial meeting on immunisation in Montenegro on 20 February 2018.
It highlighted a surge in measles cases during 2017, which included large outbreaks – defined as 100 or more cases – in 15 of the 53 countries in the European region.
The report noted that the highest numbers of affected people were reported in Romania (5,562), Italy (5,006) and Ukraine (4,767).
“Elimination of both measles and rubella is a priority goal that all European countries have firmly committed to”
These countries have experienced a “range of challenges” in recent years, such as declines in overall routine immunisation coverage and interruptions in vaccine supply, noted the WHO.
Greece (967), Germany (927), Serbia (702), Tajikistan (649), France (520), the Russian Federation (408), Belgium (369), the UK (282), Bulgaria (167), Spain (152), Czechia (146) and Switzerland (105) also experienced large outbreaks, many of which were in decline by the close of 2017.
The WHO stated that actions to stop the current outbreaks and prevent new ones were taking place on “various fronts”.
These included raising public awareness, immunising healthcare professionals and other adults at particular risk, addressing challenges in access, and improving supply planning and logistics.
However, the WHO noted that the process of verifying measles and rubella elimination by country, introduced in 2012, had moved the region closer to its measles and rubella elimination goal.
As of the end of 2016, 42 of the 53 countries in the region had “interrupted endemic measles transmission”, it noted.
Meanwhile, a total of 713 cases of rubella were recorded in Europe last year, including three in the UK. This was compared to a total of 1,332 cases during 2016, including two in the UK.
Health ministers from 11 countries will meet on 20 February to discuss working together to achieve the goals set out in the European Vaccine Action Plan by 2020, including measles and rubella elimination.
Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe, said: “Every new person affected by measles in Europe reminds us that unvaccinated children and adults, regardless of where they live, remain at risk of catching the disease and spreading it to others who may not be able to get vaccinated.
“Over 20,000 cases of measles, and 35 lives lost in 2017 alone, are a tragedy we simply cannot accept,” she said.
She noted that the elimination of both measles and rubella was a priority goal that all European countries have “firmly committed to”.
Dr Jakab added: “This short-term setback cannot deter us from our commitment to be the generation that frees our children from these diseases once and for all.”
The report was based on measles and rubella data for January to December 2017, which was submitted to WHO by member states as of 2 February 2018.