Four countries lost their measles-free status in Europe in 2018

Health chiefs warn children will die if measles isn’t stopped as it reveals four European countries including the UK have been stripped of their measles-free status in the last year

  • There have been more measles cases this year than in the whole of 2018
  • The UK, Albania, Czech Republic and Greece have lost their measles-free status 
  • Experts in Britain said it was ‘disheartening’ to see countries go backwards

Europe is slipping away from eradicating measles as four countries have lost their measles-free status, the World Health Organization has warned.

The UK lost its elimination status just 10 days ago and Albania, Greece and Czechia have all also lapsed in the last year. 

And 89,994 cases of the killer infection were diagnosed in the region in the first six months of this year – more than in the entire of 2018. 

The WHO has warned children will die if it’s not brought under control across the continent.  

Experts say more work needs to be done to crack down on the illness and that it was ‘disheartening’ to see countries’ progress going backwards.

Albania, Czech Republic, Greece and the UK (highlighted in orange) have become the first countries to have their measles-free status revoked by the World Health Organization

‘Re-establishment of measles transmission is concerning,’ said Dr Günter Pfaff, chair of the European Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination (RVC).

‘If high immunization coverage is not achieved and sustained in every community, both children and adults will suffer unnecessarily and some will tragically die.’

The warning was given after the RVC’s annual analysis of elimination statuses of countries in the WHO European region, which includes some of the Middle East.

To qualify as having ‘eliminated’ measles, a nation must have had no cases of an illness for at least three years despite having a high-quality surveillance system.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the UK had lost its status on August 19 after there were 231 lab-confirmed cases in the first quarter of this year.

Austria and Switzerland achieved elimination last year, bringing the total to 35 countries, while 12 still have regular measles infections.


Measles is a highly contagious viral infection that spreads easily from an infected 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 

A further two have managed to interrupt the transmission of the infection, putting them in line for elimination if they can keep it up.

But cases of the viral infection have surged this year in the region, with more cases recorded in the first six months of 2019 than the 84,462 in the whole of 2018.

Professor Martin Marshal, vice-chair of the UK’s Royal College of GPs, said: ‘It is disheartening to see these findings by the RVC at a time when we, and other countries across Europe, were on the way towards completely eradicating measles – a potentially deadly but entirely preventable disease.’

Measles, which can be prevented with a vaccine, is caused by a virus which spreads rapidly in the same way as colds do.

Although most people recover from the illness within a week or two, some can develop life-threatening complications such as pneumonia or brain swelling.

Professor Marshall added it was important that people continued to tear apart myths about vaccinations and encourage people to get their children immunised.

He said: ‘It is encouraging that WHO has increased its focus on measles elimination and upgraded action to address the challenges which have allowed this deadly virus to persist in countries including the UK.

‘This, alongside a commitment by our government to tackle a wave of dangerous anti-vax messages being shared online – particularly via social media – will hopefully go a long way in helping the country get back on track and regain our measles-free status.

‘Everybody has a part to play if we are to successfully combat anti-vaxxer propaganda, not least the technology companies who must take responsibility and tackle confusion around the vaccination information being shared on their platforms.’

Measles vaccination rates – the MMR jab – are at their lowest rate since 2011, with 87.2 per cent of children having both doses before their fifth birthday.


The UK’s chief medical officer – the top advisor to the Government – last year criticised people spreading lies about vaccines being unsafe.

Dame Sally Davies, speaking on the 30th anniversary of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) jab, said people spreading the ‘myths’ were ‘absolutely wrong’.

She said in November: ‘Over 30 years, we have vaccinated millions of children. It is a safe vaccination, we know that, and we’ve saved millions of lives across the world.

‘People who spread these myths, when children die they will not be there to pick up the pieces or the blame.’ 

One myth is based on research done by Andrew Wakefield in the 1990s which claimed MMR led to autism, but his results were later found to be fake, and the work was called ‘fatally flawed’, ‘fraudulent’ and ‘dishonest’ by experts in the field. 

Others claim the vaccine doesn’t work – but after the introduction of MMR in 1963, global measles deaths dropped, on average, from 2.6million to around 100,000, according to the WHO.

The vaccine was introduced by the NHS in 1988, a year in which there were 86,001 cases of measles in England – within 10 years, in 1998, this had dropped to just 3,728 reported.

The figure has fluctuated since, believed to be partly due to the Wakefield scare in the mid-90s, but in 2017 there were reports of only 1,693 measles cases in England.

(Note: Figures quoted are cases reported to Public Health England and not lab-confirmed numbers)

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