Children run risk of preventable deaths from declining vaccinations

Officials from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) revealed new data Monday confirming an upward trend in measles and pertussis — or whooping cough — cases last year.

At least five people in EU countries died of measles between March 2023 and the end of February 2024, all in Romania, while data showed a more than 10-fold increase in whooping cough cases in the EU in 2023 and 2024 compared to the previous two years.

Infants younger than 12 months are most at risk. In most EU countries, children don’t receive the measles vaccine until they are a year old and are best protected by everyone else getting jabbed — an effect known as herd immunity. In Romania, which has experienced the worst outbreak, latest figures show that just 71 percent of the population had received a second measles vaccine.

“It is disheartening to see that despite decades of a well-documented safety and effectiveness track record of vaccines, countries in the EU/EEA and globally still face outbreaks of several vaccine-preventable diseases,” said Andrea Ammon, ECDC director.

Both whooping cough and measles spread easily and high vaccination levels are needed to prevent outbreaks. For measles, vaccination coverage of at least 95 percent of the population is optimal.

But according to the latest data, from the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2022, only four EU countries — Hungary, Malta, Portugal, and Slovakia — reported 95 percent coverage for two doses of the measles vaccine.

Some countries, including Austria, Denmark and Norway, have made steady progress and are hovering just below that target — but others are falling further behind. In Estonia, reported vaccination rates for a second dose of the measles vaccine fell 20 percent from 2018 to 2022. In Iceland and Romania, the equivalent figures were 15 and 10 percent, respectively.

Romania is one of the countries that has struggled with major measles outbreaks over the past year. Its 4,594 cases from March 2023 to February 2024 made up almost 80 percent of the EU total.

While Romania is making progress in suppressing the measles epidemic officials declared in December — cases fell sharply in February from the previous month after the WHO in January called for urgent vaccinations — many other EU countries saw their numbers increase.

Speaking at a press briefing on Monday, Sabrina Bacci, head of vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization at ECDC, stressed the benefits of vaccination: “Measles vaccines are some of the most effective, safe, and accessible vaccines we have available … measles is a disease we can really control with high vaccination uptake.”

Bacci also flagged the alarming rise in whooping cough cases, which officials warn is also fuelled by low vaccination rates. Experts fear that anti-vaccine sentiment during Covid has undermined confidence in routine vaccinations and allowed old health threats to reemerge.

For Ammon of ECDC, who retires as director in June, vaccination is the priority.

“Achieving and maintaining high vaccination uptake, disease surveillance and prompt response actions to control outbreaks remain the key actions against these diseases. Vaccines have protected many generations, and we should ensure that this continues to be the case.”