WHO reports measles outbreaks in European countries
April 20th, 2011
06:58 PM ET

WHO reports measles outbreaks in European countries

Airfares to Europe are quite enticing at the moment, but traveling to that continent could introduce you to more than just the sights. Many European countries are dealing with measles outbreaks according to information released by the World Health Organization on Wednesday.

At least 6,500 cases of measles have been reported in a dozen countries so far this year, nearly 5,000 of them in France alone. Most of the people who got the disease in France were not immunized with the measles vaccine, according to Dr. Rebecca Martin, who heads the Vaccine Preventable Diseases program for the WHO's European Region. "About 30% are seen in cases [in France] too young to receive vaccine." Martin says a substantial number of adolescents have also been infected and one adult died from the disease.

Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland, Serbia and Turkey have also reported cases of measles in 2011, according to the WHO. Bulgaria's measles cases seemed to have peaked, according to Martin. "We had a very large outbreak starting in April 2009 in Bulgaria through 2010 with over 24,000 cases and 24 deaths," she says.

British Health officials also continue to see cases of measles this year. 53 cases have been confirmed in England and Wales, of which several have been traced back to travel to the continent.

"People don't think measles is a severe disease, but it is a severe disease, there are complications and death can occur," Martin tells CNN.

"We see many reasons why people aren't vaccinated, but the result is the same – people are getting the disease," she says.

In Bulgaria, many of the cases are among the ethnic Roma population, which often has limited or no access to regular health care services.  Belgium has recorded at least 100 cases so far in 2011 (it had only 40  in all of 2010) and many of the cases are traced back to anthroposophic communities near Ghent, which believe it's better to experience a disease than to get vaccinated, says Martin.

She says France's outbreak is probably attributable to a lack of vaccination due to the persistent notion that the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine is harmful.  "The vaccine is a safe vaccine," she says – adding that the disease is much more severe than any possible side effects that might be caused by the vaccine.  "It does lead to death."

Dr. William Schaffner chairs the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  He says these outbreaks are a tragedy because "measles is a really bad disease."   He tells his medical students at Vanderbilt that before there was a vaccine, 400 people would die each year in the United States from measles.

Schaffner, who is also the president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, says even the remote areas in the Amazon have well-functioning immunization programs, which have contributed to measles being eliminated from the Western Hemisphere.   

"The only measles we have in the Western Hemisphere is imported," says Schaffner and he faults the Europeans for being "behind some of the developing countries in their commitment to measles elimination."

If one country has an outbreak, measles can easily be transferred to another country by travelers.  Martin says that the big outbreak in Bulgaria started with a case that came from Germany to Bulgaria.

Another example on the WHO website describes how a 9-month old child in the U.S. contracted measles in the Dominican Republic, most likely due to the exposure to an adult from Europe.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one out of 1,000 children with measles get inflammation of the brain, and one or two out of 1,000 who contract the disease will die.

Martin urges people to get vaccinated and get vaccinated on time according to the vaccine schedules of the country you live in.  In the U.S., the CDC is urging parents to make sure their children are vaccinated before traveling abroad.

A child gets his or her first MMR shot between 12 and 15 months of age and then another shot at about age 4.

But if you are traveling overseas with a  6- to 11-month-old baby, the CDC is now recommending these infants should get one MMR shot to get some protection.  Schaffner  calls this the "travel dose," but adds that this does not replace the regularly scheduled measles vaccinations – this child would still need an MMR shot between 12-15 months and before the child enters pre-school, around the age of 4.

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