Why Children in Europe are Dying from an Eliminated Disease

In just the first 6 months of 2018, Europe has had a staggering 41,000 cases of measles. This is worse than any other full year in the last decade. It’s almost 8 times the number of cases in 2016 and I dread to think what the count will be by the end of the year.

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There has been an alarming rise in the number of measles cases in Europe over the past few years (Source: The Science Boi)

Measles is a highly contagious virus; a single infected individual can spread it to 90% of their contacts (assuming those contacts are not immune).

Anti-vaxxers love referring to measles as a “benign disease” but they never talk about blindness, encephalitis (an infection that causes brain swelling), and pneumonia – all severe, and sometimes fatal, complications which can result from measles infection.

Thankfully, we’ve had an effective vaccine for measles since 1968, providing virtually complete protection against the virus.

You might be confused then, to hear that there have been 37 deaths from measles in Europe this year. I don’t know about you, but I think even 1 death is too many when we’re talking about a preventable disease.


Sometimes the success of vaccination is its own worst enemy (Source: MEME)

So far, we’ve had over 1000 cases of measles in France, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine. The experts all agree that the rise in measles across Europe is due to declining vaccination rates.

Over the last 10 years, the level of vaccine uptake in certain European countries has fallen below levels in Africa. Which is strange considering that limited access to vaccinations services and health education is generally not as big a problem in Europe.

So where does the problem exist? Experts fear that misinformation, distrust and the growing influence of the anti-vaxx community are to blame.


Over ½ of all measles cases in Europe this year occurred in Ukraine

There’s no doubt that areas in Ukraine that are engaged in conflict with Russia – and therefore have limited access to healthcare – are contributing to the measles crisis. However, measles outbreaks are also occurring outside of these regions. To make matters worse, Ukraine has had inconsistent supplies of the MMR vaccine since 2014.

In my opinion though, the most worrying situation is the widespread mistrust of vaccines amongst not just parents, but healthcare providers!

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Many of the health officials still think that the MMR vaccine causes autism – a discredited idea! (Source: Giphy)

Perhaps this explains why – in 2014 – less than half of the children in Ukraine were vaccinated against measles. This kind of failure has far-reaching consequences, as Ukraine still pulls in large amounts of tourists from Europe each year.


France is not only the most popular country in the world in terms of tourism, it is also the most sceptical of vaccine safety out of the 67 countries included in the 2016 State of Vaccine Confidence survey.


According to a recent study, Europe is the most sceptical continent when it comes to vaccine safety, with France taking the lead. (Source: Vaccine Confidence Project)

Amazingly, only 52% of the French believe that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks and 3 out of 10 people don’t trust vaccines.

Like Ukraine, some French healthcare professionals harbour a distrust of vaccination, as 25% of French doctors believe some of the officially recommended vaccines aren’t useful.

On a more positive note, France recently managed to avoid a Trump-like situation. Marine Le Pen – a French politician who has spoken out against vaccination – ran for president in 2017.

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Fortunately, Le Pen was defeated by current President Emmanuel Macron. (Source: Giphy)

Thankfully, neither the President nor the French Prime Minister are in the anti-science camp. PM Edouard Phillippe has spoken out on the recent measles outbreaks:

“Children are still dying of measles…in the homeland of [Louis] Pasteur that is not admissible”

With these two at the helm of the French government, 11 vaccinations (including MMR) have become mandatory as of 2018.

The idea of mandatory vaccinations can be controversial, with some groups insisting that vaccinating their children should be a “personal choice” even though it has a community-wide effect.

“…is it your inalienable right as a French citizen to allow your child to catch and transmit a potentially fatal infection?” – Dr Paul Offit, Director of the Vaccine Education Centre.

Mandatory vaccinations were adopted by Italy as well, but the Italians have not been as successful as the French in keeping anti-vaxxers out of the government.


In response to the measles crisis in Europe, Italy brought out some superb legislation. From March of this year, the number of vaccinations required for children to attend state schools increased from 4 to 10 (now including the MMR vaccine). However, this was not to last…

The newly elected Italian government – a coalition of the “Five-Star Movement” and “The League” – came to power in May and immediately counteracted this legislation.

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A rally against mandatory vaccines in Turin, Italy in 2017. (Source: Nicolò Campo via Getty Images)

Fun fact about the Five-Star Movement; Beppe Grillo (the founder) believes that HIV / AIDS is a hoax and that vaccinations are “useless”.

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Equally ridiculous; Paola Taverna (a Five-Star Official) recently backed “measles parties” where children gather to infect each other and build up immunity (Source: Giphy)

From late 2019 onwards, children will receive only 4 vaccinations before entering school. Worse still; until this comes into effect, parents won’t be required to provide the school with a doctor’s note proving their children have been vaccinated.

This is what happens when politicians embrace anti-vaxxers.

It’s Natural to be Concerned for your Children

We all want to keep our families safe at times like these. However, some parents may have doubts or fears when it comes to vaccinating their children.

But what does science have to say to these fears?


Does the MMR vaccine cause Autism?

This one comes up all the time.

In 1998, the notorious Wakefield paper claimed that the MMR vaccine was linked to the development of autism. The paper was quickly retracted when it was discovered that Wakefield had fabricated his data.

Since then, multiple reliable studies involving groups of children as large as 1 million (Wakefields fraudulent study looked at only 9 kids) have consistently found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.


Unfortunately, some people will always disagree with science (Source: Giphy)

Does the MMR vaccine contain any harmful chemicals?

When the subject of “harmful chemicals” is brought up, Thimerosal gets most of the attention.

However, there is no evidence that the low amounts of Thimerosal present in vaccines cause any harm.

In addition, Thimerosal was removed from all childhood vaccines in the U.S.A. in 2001; and most importantly, it has never been a component of the MMR vaccine.


I’ve heard the MMR is a Live Vaccine, isn’t that dangerous?

Technically speaking, the MMR vaccine is what we call a “Live-attenuated vaccine”.

This means that the measles, mumps and rubella microorganisms that are contained within are live, but they have been weakened (attenuated) to the point where they no longer cause disease (non-pathogenic).

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These vaccines are superb at stimulating your immune response (kind of like setting off an alarm) (Source: Giphy)

However, there are certain groups of people who should not be given Live-attenuated vaccines.

How to Protect your Family and Yourself

If you’re currently pregnant, or you have a child with a compromised immune system or who is simply too young (<6 months of age) then the MMR vaccine cannot be administered.

The same goes if your or your child have experienced a severe allergic reaction to a previous dose of the vaccine.

If you or someone in your family cannot receive the MMR vaccine for medical reasons, then Human Normal Immunoglobulin (HNIG) might be recommended. HNIG is a special concentration of antibodies that can give short-term (but immediate) protection against measles.

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If you’re in doubt, talk to your GP; they’ll be able to provide advice for whatever your situation is.

Finally, if you’re planning a holiday in Europe or to other areas that have been affected by measles, mumps or rubella, be sure to get your MMR vaccination before you go – it’s never too late to catch up!

The World Health Organisation (WHO) are aiming to eradicate measles by 2020, and that’s only possible if every one of us does our part.

To Learn more about the MMR vaccine (or vaccines in general) be sure to check out:

Who Should Receive the MMR Vaccine?

How to Avoid Measles

Vaccines are they Safe? & Rise of the Anti-Vaxxers – Two great podcasts for the general public which provide a nice background for the MMR vaccine and Anti-vaxxers.

The Basics of Vaccine Science & Common Anti-Vaxx Myths – Two articles focusing on the basics of how vaccines work, how they are tested and whether anti-vaxx myths stand up to scrutiny.

If you have any questions or if you’d like to see more posts like this let us know!


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