Measles cases rose by 400% across Europe last year

The number of measles cases in Europe rose by 400 per cent in 2017 compared to the previous year, new figures reveal.

The life-threatening infection affected 21,315 people last year, resulting in 35 fatalities, the figures add. This comes after a record low of just 5,273 incidences in 2016.       

Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, regional director for Europe at the World Health Organization (WHO), 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.’ 

Poor vaccination rates are thought to have led to epidemics in Romania, Italy and Ukraine.

As of last month, there were 122 confirmed cases of measles across five regions in England, with West Yorkshire, West Midlands, and Liverpool and Cheshire being most affected.  

To prevent an outbreak, 95 per cent of the population should be immunised.

Yet, in the UK, only 91.9 per cent of children were vaccinated against measles between 2015 and 2016 compared to 94.2 per cent in 2014-to-2015 and 94.3 per cent in 2013-to-2014, according to NHS immunisation statistics. 

The WHO claims people’s fear of jabs, means many, particularly young children, are unprotected.

This fear could be attributed to disgraced gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield’s theory in 1995 that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is linked to bowel disease and autism. His controversial views have since been widely discredited.

The number of measles cases in Europe rose by 400 per cent in 2017 (stock)


The ‘elimination’ of measles has been achieved in the UK, global health leaders said in September.

This can be verified once a country has sustained ‘interruption of endemic transmission’ for at least 36 months, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The European Regional Verification Commission said the UK achieved elimination status for measles as of 2016.

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England, said: ‘We are delighted that the WHO has confirmed that the UK achieved measles elimination in 2016 and that rubella elimination continues to be sustained.

‘In addition, national vaccine coverage of the first MMR dose in five year olds has hit the WHO’s 95 per cent target. 

‘This is a huge achievement and a testament to all the hard work by our health professionals in the NHS to ensure that all children and adults are fully protected with two doses of the MMR vaccine.

‘We need to ensure that this is sustained going forward by maintaining and improving coverage of the MMR vaccine in children and by catching up older children and young adults who missed out.’ 

Epidemics in Europe  

The surge in measles cases in 2017 included large outbreaks in 15 of the 53 European countries. 

Romania was most affected with 5,562 cases, followed by Italy with 5,006 and Ukraine with 4,767 incidences. These regions have experienced a decline in overall routine immunisation rates. 

These figures comes after the WHO declared measles ‘eliminated’ from Europe in 2016 after 42 countries successfully disrupted disease transmission.

Yet, it now says, ‘outbreaks will continue to occur until every susceptible child and adult is protected’. 

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England, added: ‘Due to ongoing measles outbreaks within Europe, we will continue to see imported measles cases in the UK in unimmunised individuals.

‘This serves as an important reminder for parents to take up the offer of MMR vaccination for their children when offered at one year of age and as a pre-school booster at three years, four months of age.’ 

Ministers of health from 11 countries will meet today to discuss working together to achieve the goals set out in the European Vaccine Action Plan by 2020, including measles and rubella elimination.

Low vaccination rates 

Dr Will Welfare, a consultant in health protection at Public Health England, told Manchester Evening News: ‘Measles is a very infectious virus and can spread rapidly among communities, such as schools, if people have not been fully immunised. 

‘I would appeal to any parents who have not yet had their children vaccinated to get them protected as soon as possible through their GP.’

Dr David Elliman, paediatrician at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, added: ‘Although the uptake of the both doses of MMR vaccine is high in UK, because measles is so infectious, it is not yet high enough to stop [the] outbreaks we are seeing’.  

The World Health Organization claims people's fear of vaccines, along with complacency, means many, particularly young children, are unprotected against measles

The World Health Organization claims people’s fear of vaccines, along with complacency, means many, particularly young children, are unprotected against measles


Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that spreads easily from an injected person by coughing, sneezing or even just breathing.

Symptoms develop between six and 19 days after infection, and include a runny nose, cough, sore eyes, a fever and a rash.

The rash appears as red and blotchy marks on the hairline that travel down over several days, turning brown and eventually fading. 

Some children complain of disliking bright lights or develop white spots with red backgrounds on their tongue.

In one in 15 cases, measles can cause life-threatening complications including pneumonia, convulsions and encephalitis.

Dr Ava Easton, chief executive of the Encephalitis Society told MailOnline: ‘Measles can be very serious. 

‘[It] can cause encephalitis which is inflammation of the brain. 

‘Encephalitis can result in death or disability.’

Treatment focuses on staying hydrated, resting and taking painkillers, if necessary.

Measles can be prevented by receiving two vaccinations, the first at 13 months old and the second at three years and four months to five years old.

Source: Great Ormond Street Hospital 

Is Andrew Wakefield’s discredited research to blame for low vaccination rates? 

In 1995 the gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet showing children who had been vaccinated against MMR were more likely to have bowel disease and autism. 

He speculated that being injected with a ‘dead’ form of the measles virus via vaccination causes disruption to intestinal tissue, leading to both of the disorders. 

After a 1998 paper further confirmed this finding, Wakefield said: ‘The risk of this particular syndrome [which he termed ‘autistic enterocolitis’] developing is related to the combined vaccine, the MMR, rather than the single vaccines.’ 

At the time, Wakefield had a patent for single measles, mumps and rubella vaccines, and was therefore accused of having a conflict of interest. 

Nonetheless, MMR vaccination rates in the US and the UK plummeted, until, in 2004 the then-editor of The Lancet Dr Richard Horton described Wakefield’s research as ‘fundamentally flawed’, adding he was paid by attorneys seeking lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. 

The Lancet formally retracted Wakefield’s research paper in 2010. 

Three months later, the General Medical Council banned Wakefield from practicing medicine in Britain, stating his research had shown a ‘callous disregard’ for children’s health. 

On January 6 2011, The British Medical Journal published a report showing that of the 12 children included in Wakefield’s 1995 study, at most two had autistic symptoms post vaccination, rather than the eight he claimed. 

At least two of the children also had developmental delays before they were vaccinated, yet Wakefield’s paper claimed they were all ‘previously normal’. 

Further findings revealed none of the children had autism, non-specific colitis or symptoms within days of receiving the MMR vaccine, yet the study claimed six of the participants suffered all three.