The World Health Organization is warning of an “alarming rise” of measles cases in Europe that is only accelerating.
There were 42,200 measles cases across 41 WHO European Region member states in 2023 — up from 941 cases reported in all of 2022, according to WHO.
The organization said in a release Wednesday that the rise in cases has accelerated in recent months, and they are expected to continue to rise unless urgent measures are taken.
“Vaccination is the only way to protect children from this potentially dangerous disease. Urgent vaccination efforts are needed to halt transmission and prevent further spread,” Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said in a statement.
Canada has not seen such a dramatic increase in measles cases, reporting 12 cases in 2023 and three in 2022, according to federal data.
However, Dr. Don Sheppard, the vice president of Infectious Diseases and Vaccination Programs at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), told Global News that measles can move easily from one country or region to another thanks to global travel.
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He said that 11 of last year’s 12 cases were in travellers who got it abroad, and the 12th case was from a secondary transmission within a household. Sheppard said 2024 already has its first importation case of measles from someone who got it abroad.
“When it circulates anywhere in the world, travelers who go to that place can bring it back home with them,” he said.
Sheppard said the spike in measles cases in Europe is not surprising given the rate of vaccinations for the disease went down across the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly where measles has not been eliminated.
Kazhakstan recorded the most cases of measles in 2023 at 13,677 cases. More than 11,300 cases were among children under 14 years old — roughly 70 per cent of that age group is unvaccinated against measles, according to WHO.
But it’s not just Kazhakstan seeing spikes in the disease.
Last week, U.K. health officials called for “urgent action” in vaccinating the public amid a rapid rise in cases and outbreaks in some regions.
“Immediate action is needed to boost (measles, mumps, rubella vaccine) uptake across communities where vaccine uptake is low,” said U.K. Health Security Agency’s chief executive Jenny Harries.
“We need a long-term concerted effort to protect individuals and to prevent large measles outbreaks.”
Measles has been eliminated in Canada for many years, Sheppard said, but warned that it is very contagious if you are not vaccinated against it, with a chance of up to 90 per cent of contracting it.
“It is one of the most infectious diseases on the planet,” he said.
Sheppard said measles initially presents as a cold with a cough and runny nose, and is often associated with red eyes. But after a few days, its signature rash appears that can cover your whole body. He said it can be a deadly disease, especially for children under five years old, and can lead to swelling of the brain.
Sheppard said everyone should be vaccinated against measles, as it is safe and effective.
However, measles vaccination rates in Canada for children seven years old or younger have gone down in recent years, to 79.2 per cent in 2021, down from 83.3 per cent in 2019 and 87 per cent in 2017, according to PHAC.
© 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.