Scientists doubt Europe can wipe out measles by 2010

By Michael Kahn

LONDON (Reuters) - Too many children remain unvaccinated against measles for Europe to have any realistic hope of eliminating the disease by 2010, researchers said on Wednesday.

In 2006 and 2007, more than 12,000 measles cases were reported in the region, mainly in Romania, Germany, Britain, Switzerland and Italy where fewer children have immunizations against the disease, they found.

In their study published in the journal The Lancet, the researchers found that 85 percent of the measles cases were reported in just these five countries.

“Measles is erroneously thought of to be a mild disease but it can cause complications, including fatal ones,” said Mark Muscat, an epidemiologist at the Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen, who led the study of 32 countries.

The vaccination rates across Europe ranged from above 95 percent in Finland in recent periods to as low as 70 percent for children born between 1996 and 2003 in Germany, the researchers said.

Measles kills about 250,000 people a year globally, mostly children in poor nations. But parent refusal to have their children vaccinated has led to a rise in measles cases in the United States and parts of Europe in recent years.

Public health officials, bolstered by a series of studies, have stressed the safety of the combined measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, shot and other childhood vaccines. But there are groups who say the jab may cause autism or other problems.

“Our job is to make sure people understand the vaccine is safe even though it has received bad publicity, and we should regain confidence in the MMR vaccine,” Muscat said.

Data collected over two years from European Union nations along with Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Turkey and Croatia showed the disease killed seven people in the two-year period.

The study did not explain the low vaccination rates. Muscat said bad publicity about the shots in Britain and a lack of information about the vaccines and motivation to administer them in other countries could be to blame.

The goal for health officials is to achieve 95 percent vaccination coverage across Europe, which would provide so-called herd immunity to people in the general population who do not receive the vaccines, the researchers said.

But countries like Switzerland reported vaccination coverage of about 82 percent between 1991 and the beginning of the decade, while in Britain and Italy coverage for children at 2 years of age was less than 90 percent in recent years.

(Reporting by Michael Kahn; editing by Maggie Fox and Sophie Hardach)

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