Over 21,000 people caught measles across the continent in 2017, "following a record low of 5,273 cases in 2016," the WHO wrote in a press release. Some 35 people died as a result, with 15 countries seeing large outbreaks:
The surge in measles cases in 2017 included large outbreaks (100 or more cases) in 15 of the 53 countries in the Region. The highest numbers of affected people were reported in Romania (5562), Italy (5006) and Ukraine (4767). These countries have experienced a range of challenges in recent years, such as declines in overall routine immunization coverage, consistently low coverage among some marginalized groups, interruptions in vaccine supply or underperforming disease surveillance systems.
Belgium, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Greece, Russia and Tajikistan all saw hundreds of cases, per the WHO report.
Measles is a potentially deadly virus easily prevented by the MMR vaccine, which also guards against mumps and rubella. According to the WHO, Romania, Italy, and Ukraine have all seen "declines in overall routine immunization coverage, consistently low coverage among some marginalized groups, interruptions in vaccine supply, or underperforming disease surveillance systems."
Per the New York Times, many of the infections in Romania were among the Roma, who often fail to vaccinate children and are not quick to take the ill to hospitals. In Italy, 88 per cent of the infected people had failed to get vaccinations, the Times wrote — right at the same time anti-vaccine sentiment there and across the continent is growing. Unwarranted scepticism about the safety and efficacy of vaccines is high throughout Europe in part due to the same kind of vaccine-autism conspiracy theories rife in the US, as well as teachings by some conservative Protestant churches.
As the Times wrote, national governments have begun instituting compulsory vaccination as a result:
The measles outbreaks have led some European countries to crack down. Laws were passed in France, Germany and Italy requiring that parents vaccinate their children or at least consult a doctor about doing so. Italy and Germany imposed fines of $US600 ($765) to $US3,000 ($3,827) for failing to comply.
As the Verge noted, California has also restricted parents' ability to claim personal belief as a reason for not vaccinating their children, though many parents were seemingly able to convince doctors to sign off on medical exemptions instead.
According to the Times, though progress in Europe is stalling the measles vaccine has been hugely successful, sharply reducing the 2.6 million worldwide annual deaths from the disease reported in the 1980s to less than 100,000 in 2016.