European efforts to wipe out measles by 2015 are in jeopardy as outbreaks continue to sweep across the continent

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A series of measles epidemics in Western Europe and a major polio outbreak in Central Asia served to focus minds as senior officials met in Brussels to launch European Immunization Week.

The WHO had hoped to eradicate poliomyelitis by next year and to do the same for measles and rubella by the middle of the decade but recent events are seen as a serious setback.

Launching the EIW, Zsuzsanna Jakab, Regional Director, WHO Europe, described the measles figures as “sombre” but committed to stepping up the fight in the face of waning immunisation rates.

“In 2010, we witnessed explosive measles outbreaks continuing in the western part of the region and the re-emergence of poliomyelitis at a time when we would have been preparing to celebrate 10 years of polio-free status in 2012,” she said.

Twenty four European countries have reported more than 4,000 cases in the first quarter of 2011, sparking concerns of a further surge in the wake of the Easter holiday.

Europe on a ‘slippery slope’

“It disheartens me to see our strong region facing this slippery slope of losing the significant gains, knowing what the consequences will be: increased illness, lifelong disability and deaths.

However, on the positive side, we have witnessed countries mount effective responses to many of these outbreaks, by applying lessons learned, conducting joint planning and ensuring strong collaboration between all countries in the region,” Ms Jakab said.

She said strong partnerships between countries are needed to prevent and control vaccine-preventable diseases.

“I want to assure everyone that we have effective tools, and we will continue to engage political leaders, public health experts, academia, institutes and the public to reach these goals. This is a marathon with the finish line now in sight – we need to urgently press on to meet the milestones we have set and to win. It can be done!”

Victim of own success

John Ryan, a senior official at the European Commission’s health and consumers’ directorate, said that despite the proven safety and efficacy of vaccines, too few children are protected against preventable diseases.

“Perhaps vaccines are a victim of their own success. Some parents lack information on vaccination while others are not familiar with the diseases they protect against,” he said.

Continuity of immunisation is a major difficulty for healthcare providers and the EU is looking at ways to better document vaccination status of children in Europe, according to Mr Ryan. He indicated that health ministers will adopt a series of measures in June which could help tackle these problems.

Reaching out to minorities and migrant populations will be particularly important, Mr Ryan said, and guidelines on how to do this can be developed at European level.

European Immunization Week Regional Launch

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