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Measles on the increase in Belgium and worldwide

Children in Guinea being vaccinated ©Unicef

The number of cases of measles in Belgium increased fivefold in the first seven months of this year, compared to the same period in 2018, according to provisional figures published by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

All cases of measles, like many other infectious diseases, have to be reported to the national public health authorities, who in turn report to the WHO. Belgium reported 361 new cases in the first seven months of the year, compared to 76 in the same period last year. In fact, the number of cases so far is three times more than the total for all of 2018. The figures, however, are so far identical to 2017 at this stage; then, the annual total increased by only six cases to 367.

Measles is a highly contagious infectious disease which causes fever and a rash, and which depresses the patient’s immune system, leaving them vulnerable to other infections. In the developed world, measles is seen as a disease of childhood, and in most cases means no more than 7-10 days of discomfort. However complications can follow, including inflammation of the brain, blindness and even death.

The disease cannot be treated as such, but the regime of a double vaccination is highly effective in preventing the disease in individuals, and more importantly in stopping the spread of the disease when one person catches it.

However there has recently been a growth in opponents to the vaccine, the so-called anti-vaxxers, whose opposition is largely based on claims that the vaccine can lead to autism – claims made by Dr Andrew Wakefield which later were revealed to be based on manipulated data, which led to Wakefield being struck off the medical register in the UK.

Worldwide, the WHO reports 364,808 cases of measles reported from 182 countries in the period from 1 January to 31 July 2019 – a substantial increase on the figure of 129,239 cases from 181 countries in the same period in 2018. By far the largest increase came in Africa, where the number of cases increased by 900% – a tenfold increase. Europe, by comparison, saw a 120% increase, with the number of cases more than doubling.

At present, the WHO reports, major outbreaks are under way in Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan and Thailand.

The largest outbreaks are in countries with low measles vaccination coverage, currently or in the past, which has left large numbers of people vulnerable to the disease,” the organisation said in a communique. “At the same time, protracted outbreaks are occurring even in countries with high national vaccination rates. This results from inequities in vaccine coverage, and gaps and disparities between communities, geographic areas, and among age-groups. When enough people who are not immune are exposed to measles, it can very quickly spread.”

Based on figures collected by the WHO and the UN agency Unicef, 86% of children have received the first of the two vaccinations required to combat the disease effectively, but only 69% have received the second – 23 countries have yet to introduce the second vaccination into their schedule. That leaves an estimated 20 million children worldwide who have received no vaccination at all.

WHO is urging everyone to ensure their measles vaccinations are up to date, with two doses needed to protect against the disease, and to check their vaccination status prior to travel,” the organisation said. “According to its latest travel recommendations, everyone 6 months and older should be protected against measles prior to travel to an area where measles is circulating. Anyone unsure of their vaccination status should consult with their healthcare provider. WHO recommends that travellers get vaccinated against measles at least 15 days prior to travel.”

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times

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