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Are anti-vaxxers to blame for the measles outbreak in Europe?

By Daniel J. McLaughlin

Since 1963, there has been a vaccine that makes measles a preventable disease. It should arguably be eradicated by now. However, not everyone is vaccinated against the disease, and that number is creeping up around the world.

In Europe, there was a four-fold increase on the previous year with 23,927 measles cases, including 37 deaths. And it does not look like it is improving. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported that 41,000 people were infected with measles in the first six months of 2018. "The total number for this period far exceeds the 12-month totals reported for every other year this decade," they report.

Between January 1 and October 31 this year, there have been 913 confirmed cases of measles in England. The number of cases has nearly quadrupled from 2017 (259), following Europe's trend.

What is causing the increasing outbreak of measles in Europe and beyond? With many people left unprotected against the disease, there are fingers pointing at the anti-vaxxers, the small majority with the seemingly loudest voices. But are they really to blame?

Coverage of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine among babies in the UK is high, but it is dropping. According to figures from NHS Digital, it fell in England in 2017 for the third year in a row - and it is still below the WHO target of 95 per cent.

And in some European countries over the past decade, measles vaccination rates have often fallen below those in parts of Africa, the Economist reports. Italy, France, and Serbia have lower child vaccinations rates than Burundi, Rwanda, and Senegal.

"As a society," Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, writes for the Guardian, "we have collectively failed to adequately tackle the strong anti-vaccination movement which continues to influence some parents."

Professor Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, argues that tackling public misinformation about vaccines is crucial for the future. Many of the cases of measles, she adds, will be "a direct result of susceptible teenagers and young adults who missed their MMR vaccine as children".

However, according to the Conversation, anti-vaxxers do not wholly explain low vaccination rates. In fact, their influence is "often exaggerated and does not explain a complex situation". They are in the minority: in the United States, vaccine refusal is two per cent; and it is a similar rate in Europe, and has been for a while.

"But looking at sharp drops in vaccinations over time and across populations," the Conversation explains, "these have been connected with a particular controversy, event, or change of political environment not usually directly anti-vaccination in nature."

For instance, opposition towards the HPV vaccine can be attached to moral reasons, because it is protecting against a virus that can be sexually transmitted. Some parents would find this vaccine inappropriate for their children.

Anti-vaxxers are a small but loud group, and importantly, they are spreading false misinformation - which could result in the spread of the easily preventable measles.

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