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News Analysis - The spread of measles


On 9 January Britain’s Health Protection Agency announced its concern over a possible epidemic of measles, on the back of figures showing over 1,200 cases reported to the agency up to the end of November 2008.

As Dr Mary Ramsay, an immunisation expert at the agency, pointed out, measles “is a very serious infection as it can lead to pneumonia and encephalitis, even in healthy children”. It is also highly infectious.

Measles vaccination dropped off in Britain with the unjustified scare over the triple MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine in the late 1990s. The lack of take-up was helped by a vocal anti-science, anti-medicine lobby. It is this social irresponsibility and backwardness that has led to the levels of measles we are now experiencing.

Even now, with uptake of vaccinations rising, the number of pre-school children receiving both doses of MMR by their fifth birthday is 77.9 per cent. (Uptake of one dose by age 2 is higher, at 84.5 per cent, but children need both doses to be properly protected.)

Not in Cuba

It doesn’t have to be like that. Since 1993 Cuba has remained free of measles, a disease that has yet to be eradicated in Europe due to currently insufficient rates of vaccination.

The Granma newspaper reported on 15 January that Cuba’s achievement is the result of its immunisation action, which started in 1971. This is part of a national vaccination programme that includes 11 vaccines to protect the public from 13 diseases.

Over 98 per cent of all one-year-old children, as well as all six-year olds, receive annual immunisations against measles. Marlén Valcárcel Sánchez, the national head of the Ministry of Public Health vaccination programme, said periodical follow-ups are carried out.

According to The Lancet, a study done in 32 European countries revealed that over 12,000 cases of the measles were reported between 2006 and 2007 – mostly in Romania, Germany, Britain, Switzerland and Italy.

Jacques Kremer and Claude Muller, both from the World Health Organisation (WHO), said the importation of the virus from Europe has caused several outbreaks in Latin America. The WHO officials pointed out that the rich countries must start a comprehensive vaccination programme so the disease will not affect poor nations.

They pointed to the examples of the lacklustre vaccination programmes in Germany (which covers less than 70 per cent of the children), and in Italy (which attends to less than 90 percent of the children). To eliminate measles a programme has to cover at least 95 per cent of the target population in two doses.