Measles surge in Europe: What does it mean for Australia?


Measles cases in Europe have hit a two-decade high, with the number of cases contracted in the first six months of 2018 nearly double that for the whole of 2017.

More than 41,000 people in Europe have contracted measles since January, leading to 37 fatalities.

Last year there were 24,000 cases and the year before that just over 5,000.

Professor of Global Biosecurity at the University of New South Wales, Raina MacIntyre, blamed the surge in infections on a decline in the number of people being vaccinated.

She said a now-retracted study from 1998 on the link between autism and vaccines is partly to blame

"You need to go back to the whole debate about measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism which was started by Andrew Wakefield in the 1990s. That did have sustained impacts on vaccination rates, in the United Kingdom anyway, and probably elsewhere as well," Professor MacIntyre said.

"In other parts of Europe, particularly countries like Romania, the Ukraine and Serbia, the vaccination rates have just been low."

The Ukraine, Serbia and Georgia have some of the highest rates of measles outbreaks.

The World Health Organisation is calling on European countries to take action and has set a target to eradicate measles globally.

Professor MacIntyre doesn't believe that can be achieved unless current vaccinate rates change significantly.

"To eradicate measles you have to have over 95 per cent of people everywhere in the world immune to it, and there are just parts of the world with really low rates of vaccination, particularly in Europe but also in Asia and some parts of Africa," she said.

Measles in Australia

While Australia isn't facing a surge in measles in cases, breakouts in pockets of the community do still occur.

Australian Medical Association President Tony Bartone said measles cases contracted overseas by unimmunised travellers and brought into Australia were the leading cause of spread here.

"What we're seeing now is that people, especially people that are arriving into Australia from other parts of the world that haven't got a strong immunisation schedule, or travellers from Australia who have had their vaccination levels particularly lowered, going to areas where measles is more endemic and then returning back into the population," Dr Bartone said

On treating Measles

Measles is highly infectious and is spread through coughs and sneezes.

While most people recover completely, Dr Bartone says some cases can become quite serious, even deadly.

"It can start like a bad cold or cough with sore watery eyes, then you get a temperature, but then basically when the rash appears that's when the possibility of other consequences including ears and lungs, chest infection or pneumonia and it can spread to the brain."

Raina MacIntyre from the University of New South Wales said most of the time, when people in Australia are not immunised against measles, it's due to ignorance rather than wilful refusal of vaccination.

She pointed to a large measles outbreak in 2012 which exposed a pocket of people in Western Sydney that weren't immunised, despite records indicating high vaccination rates in the area.

 "There's people that are unvaccinated in older age groups that are just not getting picked up," Ms MacIntyre said.

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