Health and Healthcare Systems

Europe had a record year for Measles - and it’s partly down to anti-vaccine campaigners

Krystal Glass of Vancouver, Washington, holds up an anti-SB 5841 sign during the "March for Medical Freedom" against mandatory vaccinations before the SB 5841 hearing in Olympia, Washington, U.S., February 20, 2019.  REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson - RC1AEC610BB0

2018 saw a spike in the number of cases of measles in Europe. Image: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

Emma Charlton
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Have you had your children vaccinated?

It’s a question that might spark a strong “yes” or “no” in what’s become a highly charged debate. And while the majority of parents opt to go ahead, the World Health Organization is warning that efforts to stamp out measles – an infectious and unpleasant viral illness – are faltering, and it’s partly down to anti-vaccine campaigners.

In Europe, a record number of people caught measles last year, even as the overall rate of vaccination rose. The WHO blamed uneven progress between and within countries, which left “clusters of susceptible individuals unprotected.”

Measles on the march. Image: WHO

“Gaps at local level still offer an open door to the virus,” says Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO’s regional director for Europe. “We must do more and do it better to protect each and every person from diseases that can be easily avoided.”

Globally measles vaccine coverage has plateaued at about 85%, and in 2017 and 2018, outbreaks occurred in all of the WHO regions. The disease causes around 450 deaths each day, the WHO estimates.

Outbreaks in developed nations

Small-scale movements against compulsory vaccination have contributed to measles making a comeback. An outbreak near Portland, Oregon led health officials to declare a public health emergency, as 62 cases were confirmed, and the majority were not immunized.

This outbreak and others like it underscore how wide-reaching vaccine skepticism has become. Campaigners have continually stoked a debate over safety and links to autism, even though the claims have no scientific foundation.

“It’s extremely important that people understand that measles vaccine, like all the vaccines that we have, undergo rigorous ongoing scientific safety evaluations,” says Professor Katherine O’Brien from the Department of International Health and Department of Epidemiology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Over and over again, dozen of studies have demonstrated that measles vaccine is safe and effective.”

Vaccination is proven to work against measles. Image: RSPH report

Measles starts with cold-like symptoms and a fever and develops into a red-brown blotchy rash. While most cases pass unpleasantly, it can also lead to serious and potentially life-threatening complications including infections of the lungs and brain.

In most developed countries, children are routinely vaccinated against measles and other infectious diseases. Mistruths include linking vaccination to autism – which has been disproven – as well as the idea that a baby’s system can be “overloaded” with drugs and the view that vaccines contain harmful levels of toxins.

As well as safety concerns, religious and political beliefs are also cited by campaigners.

Have you read?

Fake news

Social media is enabling the spread of misinformation about vaccines and can “be advantageous for anti-vaccination groups,” according to the Royal Society for Public Health. Twitter hashtags provide outlets for campaigners, while on Facebook, misinformation is spread using adverts and public posts.

New and innovative ways to counteract this fake news will be increasingly important in the future, says Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health and Institute of Healthcare Management.

“Globally, some populist politicians have fuelled anti-vaccination sentiment, with notable opposition to vaccines in Italy in particular,” Cramer wrote in a report. “Though the UK has world-leading levels of vaccination coverage, history – and current events – has shown that fear and misinformation about vaccines can cause significant damage to seemingly stable vaccination programmes.”

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