Over 22,000 people were infected with measles across the EU in 2014 and 2015, including one measles-related death. The only effective preventive measure against measles remains vaccination. The recent outbreaks suggest a growing number of susceptible people are not being vaccinated. The reasons for this are varied, including a growing number of parents who are reluctant to vaccinate their children and increasing barriers of access to vaccination. To avoid further such outbreaks, it is thus crucial to provide adequate information and enable universal access to childhood vaccinations.
What many might perceive as an historical children’s disease is unfortunately still a serious health threat in Europe. Measles is a highly contagious disease that may lead to complications such as pulmonary and brain infection and secondary bacterial infections which require the use of antibiotics. The only effective preventive measure against measles is immunisation via vaccination. By introducing a tiny amount of a virus or bacterium responsible for a disease, vaccines stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies without infecting people with the disease they are designed to counteract.
Across the EU, vaccination rates against measles are unfortunately declining, and there are various reasons for this. A growing number of people are facing increasing, unacceptable barriers to vaccinations , for instance due to increased co-payments, lack of health insurance, geographical reasons, etc. A recent study by Medicins du Monde reveals that only 34.5% of children growing up in vulnerable families in Europe were vaccinated against measles. This proves that big segments of society are excluded from vaccine-preventable viral illnesses. Moreover, Germany took measures against the spread of measles, including prohibiting access to school to non-vaccinated children, which highlights the importance of guaranteeing universal access to vaccinations to avoid dual increases in health and educational inequalities.
Certain people are also not eligible for vaccination, such as children below the age of 12 months and people too ill to be vaccinated. 30% of measles cases in France occurred in infants too young to receive the vaccine.
However, non-immunised groups can still get protection through the immunised population. Studies have shown that 95% of people must be vaccinated in order to protect the entire population - or achieve what is called ’herd immunity’ as at such high vaccination rates it is possible to control outbreaks.
A growing number of parents refuse to vaccinate their children as they are concerned about the negative side effects or they question the effectiveness of vaccination. In a sense, vaccination has become a victim of its own success as people tend to forget its past effectiveness. In the specific case of measles, as a result of the reduction in cases compared to previous decades, the need for preventive measures has become less obvious. Furthermore, the Internet and social media provide access to many kinds of information that may form an unbalanced picture, as many individuals have low health literacy or find it hard to identify trustworthy sources.
EPHA reiterates that childhood vaccination is not only a personal decision, but one that can affect the wider public. The fewer children that are vaccinated, the bigger the threat of infection for the non-immunised population, including other children and vulnerable individuals. Therefore, it is crucial that parents think about these potentially far-reaching consequences and that communication strategies are developed to address the concerns and fears of vaccine hesitant communities and to educate individuals and health professionals about the benefits of vaccination. Unlike the influenza vaccine, which requires annual reformulation to protect against new strains, the measles vaccine offers all-in-one protection.
Access to childhood vaccination can also reduce the likelihood of having to use antibiotics to combat infections, thereby contributing to mitigating the threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
Finally, growing migration flows into Europe also underline the importance of universal access to healthcare and vaccination in particular. Considering that vaccination rates outside of Europe are significantly lower, it is important that asylum seekers and other migrants are adequately received and provided with free vaccination services.