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Europe's measles cases this year could soon exceed 2023 total amid 'surge', UN agencies warn

A dose of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is displayed in 2019.
A dose of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is displayed in 2019. Copyright Elaine Thompson/AP Photo, File
Copyright Elaine Thompson/AP Photo, File
By Euronews
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Measles is a highly contagious infection, with one person infecting an estimated 12 to 18 others who are unprotected against the virus.


Measles cases are surging in Europe and Central Asia, two UN agencies warned on Tuesday, calling for urgent action to respond to the outbreak.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF said in a joint statement that measles cases in the European region this year would soon be higher than the total for the whole of 2023.

"Even one case of measles should be an urgent call to action," Dr Hans Kluge, WHO's Regional Director for Europe said in a statement.

"No one should suffer the consequences of this devastating but easily preventable disease," he added.

Measles is a highly contagious virus that can lead to serious complications but is preventable through vaccination.

The symptoms include "high fever, cough, runny nose and a rash all over the body," the WHO says.

There were more than 56,000 cases of measles in the first three months of 2024 in 45 of the 53 countries in WHO's European region, the agencies said.

This compared to more than 61,000 cases of the virus reported in 41 countries in the region, which includes parts of Central Asia, throughout 2023.

Nearly half of reported measles cases in 2023 were in children under the age of five, and among those who contracted the virus, more than three-quarters had not received any doses of the measles vaccine.

Kluge urged countries to vaccinate the vulnerable even when immunisation coverage is high to "prevent the virus from taking hold in any community".

“An increase in measles cases is a clear sign of a breakdown in immunisation coverage," Regina De Dominicis, UNICEF's Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia said in a statement.

She called for urgent government action to protect children "from this dangerous but preventable disease".

The countries with the highest number of measles cases in the region were Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Russia.

Romania and Austria were the only EU countries among the top ten countries in the region with the highest number of cases between April 2023 and March 2024.

Previous warnings of 'alarming rise'

The WHO said late last year that Europe was experiencing an "alarming rise" in measles cases, with a more than 30-fold increase across the region in 2023.

Last month, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control warned of an increase in vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and pertussis (also known as whooping cough) in EU countries.

Around 5,770 measles cases were reported between March 2023 and the end of February 2024 in EU countries, including five deaths.

Infants under the age of one are at the highest risk of measles as they are too young for vaccination.


"Measles spreads very easily, therefore, high vaccination coverage, of at least 95 per cent of the population vaccinated with two doses of measles-containing vaccine, is essential to interrupt transmission," the ECDC said.

Pertussis cases were also increasing, with the ECDC reporting a more than tenfold increase in cases in 2023 and 2024 compared to 2022 and 2021.

The agency said it was essential for babies to be vaccinated on time and that vaccination during pregnancy could also help protect young infants.

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