Measles cases across Europe continue to surge, putting millions of children at risk

Rapid response to measles outbreak is critical, as cases this year predicted to soon exceed total number reported in 2023

28 May 2024
A boy is vaccinated in Tajikistan.
UNICEF/UN0780373/Nurullaev

COPENHAGEN/GENEVA, 28 May 2024 – Measles cases across Europe continue to surge, with the number of measles cases recorded for this year soon to exceed the total number of cases reported throughout 2023, warned WHO and UNICEF today.

According to the latest available data, 56,634 measles cases and four deaths were officially reported across 45 out of 53 countries in the WHO European Region during the first three months of 2024. Throughout 2023, 61,070 cases and 13 deaths were reported by 41 countries.

Measles has a devastating effect on children’s health, with young children most at risk of severe complications. High rates of hospitalization and long-lasting weakening of children’s immune systems make children more vulnerable to other infectious diseases. More than half of those who contracted measles in the WHO European Region in 2023 were hospitalized, demonstrating the severe burden on individuals, families and health care systems.

“Even one case of measles should be an urgent call to action” noted Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “No one should suffer the consequences of this devastating but easily preventable disease. I applaud every country that has accelerated their efforts to interrupt transmission through catch-up vaccination.  I urge all countries to take immediate action, even where overall immunization coverage is high, to vaccinate the vulnerable, close the immunity gaps and thereby prevent the virus from taking hold in any community.”

Nearly half of reported cases in 2023 occurred among children under five years of age, reflecting an accumulation of children who missed routine vaccinations against measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases during the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with slow recovery in vaccination coverage in 2021 and 2022.

“An increase in measles cases is a clear sign of a breakdown in immunisation coverage. As cases of measles continue to surge, we need urgent government action to both strengthen health systems and implement effective public health measures to secure protection for all children from this dangerous but preventable disease,” said Regina De Dominicis, UNICEF Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia.

Among children under five years of age who contracted measles in 2023, more than three quarters had not received any measles vaccination doses. Around 99 per cent of these children did not receive two doses of measles-containing vaccine, which confers the required protection.

Measles cases are rising globally. In 2023, there were over 300,000 cases of measles worldwide and the numbers reported so far in 2024 indicate the total for the year will match or exceed the total in 2023. Importations of the virus between countries and continents occurs regularly, and outbreaks of this highly infectious disease will occur wherever the virus finds pockets of un- or under-vaccinated people.

Countries that do not currently have measles cases or outbreaks should be proactive in planning and preparing for any such importation to prevent the virus from spreading within and beyond the country. Countries currently experiencing outbreaks need to continue their efforts to vaccinate all susceptible individuals, intensify case finding and contact tracing, and use epidemiological data to identify gaps in vaccination coverage so that the programmes can ensure affected communities are protected and future outbreaks can be prevented. UNICEF and WHO, along with other regional and global partners, will continue to support these efforts by countries.

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Notes to editors

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases in the world, spread when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes. The virus remains active and contagious in the air or on infected surfaces for up to 2 hours.

Any non-immune person can become infected. A prominent rash is the most visible symptom, while complications can include blindness, encephalitis, severe diarrhoea and related dehydration, ear infections and pneumonia.

Measles cases and outbreaks are occurring in 27 of the 33 Member States in the WHO European Region where endemically circulating measles has been verified as eliminated by WHO. These countries may risk losing their status if current circulation of measles virus continues for longer than 12 months.

WHO EpiData 4/2024 (URL pending)

12th meeting of the European Regional Verification Commission (RVC) for Measles and Rubella Elimination (who.int)

Media contacts

Georgina Diallo
UNICEF Europe and Central Asia
Tel: +41 76 320 68 14

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