Thirty-five people have died of measles across Europe in the past 12 months, the World Health Organization said Tuesday, warning that vaccination remains crucial to stopping the spread.
In the most recent case, a 6-year-old died in Italy on June 22. The boy's doctor confirmed that he had not been vaccinated against measles and died of the disease.
Another measles death and over 3,300 cases of measles have been reported in Italy alone since June 2016.
Measles is a highly infectious disease transmitted through the measles virus. It can spread from person to person by breathing contaminated air or touching an infected surface. Symptoms may begin with a high fever, cough, runny nose or red and watery eyes. After three to five days, a rash will usually appear. Measles can be serious and cause severe complications such as pneumonia or encephalitis. The disease most often affects children, especially those younger than 5.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reported that cases of measles in Europe have jumped by 50% in just the first five months of 2017, compared with the total number of measles cases during all of 2016.
There has been a particularly large increase in measles cases in Italy: 3,232 cases from January through June this year, compared with 478 in the same time period last year.
"Italy has had suboptimal (vaccine) coverage for many years now," said Dr. Rob Butler, program manager of the Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program of the WHO Regional Office for Europe. He added that vaccine coverage for measles in Italy has fallen every year since 2012.
Butler said this is in part due to the rise of anti-vaccine movements across Europe and a sense of complacency among parents.
A measure approved by the Italian parliament, and to be implemented in September, requires 12 vaccinations, including the measles vaccine, in order for a child to enroll in a government-run school. Parents who violate the law can also be fined. Italy previously required only four vaccinations for school enrollment, not including measles.
The disease is not confined to Italy. In the past 12 months, Romania has reported 31 measles deaths, the most in Europe. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reports that from June 2016 to May 2017, Romania had 3,922 measles cases, making up 42% of all European cases.
Last week, the Romanian Ministry of Health said that the measles outbreak is under control and that there is enough vaccine to cover the population. Romania has also implemented broad vaccination campaigns, though much of the population lives in areas that are hard to reach.
Germany and Portugal have both reported one measles death in the past 12 months. Germany had 950 measles cases from June 2016 to May 2017, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said, but Portugal's numbers were incomplete.
Germany implemented legislation this month that requires all kindergartens to notify health authorities if parents have not submitted their children's vaccine counseling records to the school.
The WHO recommends that 95% of a country's population should be vaccinated for measles to ensure that the virus will not continue spreading, and every eligible child should receive two doses of the measles vaccine. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a measles vaccine recommendation for all travelers to several European countries, including Italy, Romania and Germany.
"Every death or disability caused by this vaccine-preventable disease is an unacceptable tragedy," Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, the regional director for Europe, said in the WHO statement.
"We are very concerned that although a safe, effective and affordable vaccine is available, measles remains a leading cause of death among children worldwide, and unfortunately Europe is not spared. Working closely with health authorities in all European affected countries is our priority to control the outbreaks and maintain high vaccination coverage for all sections of the population."