Europe risks measles outbreak as children miss out on jabs, expert warns

The head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has warned of a heightened risk of measles outbreaks in the coming months after substantial numbers of young children missed out on protective vaccinations during the pandemic.

Dr Andrea Ammon also raised concerns about rates of Covid-19 infections among the over-65s, the group at highest risk from the disease.

Highlighting the continuing consequences of the upheavals caused by the pandemic, the ECDC director said some countries had not completed their full childhood vaccination programmes. “So here we will have to have a good look and to catch up on vaccinations, otherwise I think we will face a lot of outbreaks,” she said in an interview.

A resurgence not only of measles but also potentially mumps and rubella could now be in prospect, she suggested.

The World Health Organization said last year that the pandemic and the disruption that had resulted had “strained health systems, with 23mn children missing out on vaccination in 2020, 3.7mn more than in 2019 and the highest number since 2009”.

Ammon said that, given the length of time the pandemic had been in progress, “now it’s two age cohorts that may be affected. That’s quite a substantial amount of children.”

Even before the pandemic not every country in the EU had good child vaccination coverage, she noted. The agency now needed “to really capture what countries have been still doing” to assess the scale of the problem, she suggested.

At the other end of the age scale, Ammon also expressed concern about Covid infections in the over-65s, the age group generally considered at greatest risk of poor outcomes from the disease.

While Covid cases were declining overall, “we do see in some countries rising numbers and rates in over-65-year-olds, which is something that has to be looked at, because these are the more vulnerable groups for severe disease”, she said.

Surveillance data issued by the ECDC, drawn from 27 countries in the EU or European Economic Area, showed that in the week to May 29 increases in infections in that age group had been observed in two countries: Liechtenstein and Portugal. Cases had increased by 60 per cent and 15 per cent respectively.

Separately, the latest data from 30 EU and EEA countries published by the agency show that the over-60s is the most immunised age group, with 82.5 per cent having received a booster and just 8.3 per cent having failed to receive even a single dose.

Reflecting more broadly on the Covid response, Ammon suggested work remained to be done to safeguard Europe against potential future outbreaks.

EU member states needed to be encouraged to maintain surveillance systems and genomic sequencing to receive early warning of any new variants. “We need systems that give us, or increase, the timeliness, completeness and comparability of the data,” she added.

Some countries, she said, “have certainly changed their testing practices . . . and we just are encouraging the countries that they keep enough of testing to have high enough sensitivity to detect increases earlier”.

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