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An Indonesian child looks on as a paramedic injects measles vaccine in Banyusoco village near Gunung Kidul, Indonesia, in June 2006. ((Dita Alangkara/Associated Press))

It's unlikely that Europe will meet its goal of eliminating measles by 2010, say the authors of a new report on low vaccination rates among children in five countries.

In Wednesday's online issue of the journal The Lancet, researchers said more than 12,000 cases of measles were reported in 2006 and 2007, mainly in Romania, Germany, Britain, Switzerland and Italy. 

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

Deaths occurred in seven of the cases over a two-year period, according to the study.

Most of the cases occurred in children, but almost a fifth were in people aged 20 or older, Muscat and his colleagues said.

Vaccination rates ranged from more than 95 per cent in Finland recently to as low as 70 per cent among children born between 1996 and 2003 in Germany, the researchers found.

Vaccine safety

Measles is a highly contagious virus that is spread from person to person by droplets and direct contact with nasal and throat secretions from an infected person. A measles vaccine has been available since 1963.

'Rich countries need to be responsible for avoiding cases by implementation of high vaccination coverage, to make it the privilege of resource-poor countries not to worry about reintroductions from Europe.' — Jacques Kremer and Claude Muller

Health authorities in Canada, the U.S. and Britain have noticed increases in measles cases in recent years. Bad publicity about the measles-mumps-rubella or MMR vaccine led some parents in western countries to shy away from having their children vaccinated.

"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 told Reuters.

Health officials are aiming for 95 per cent vaccination coverage in Europe by 2010.

Exporting measles

"The more pressing question is how much measles does Europe export to countries with poor health systems and high fatality rates," wrote Jacques Kremer and Claude Muller of the WHO Regional Reference Laboratory for Measles and Rubella in Sante, Luxembourg, in an accompanying comment in the journal.

"Importations of measles virus from Europe have already triggered several outbreaks in South America…. Rich countries need to be responsible for avoiding cases by implementation of high vaccination coverage, to make it the privilege of resource-poor countries not to worry about reintroductions from Europe."

In December 2008, the World Health Organization reported that about 197,000 people died from measles in 2007, a fall of 74 per cent from 2000. The UN agency credited an international immunization campaign for the decline.

In May 2008, public health officials in Toronto urged people born from 1970 to 1995 to make sure they are properly vaccinated against measles because they likely received only one vaccination shot. Two doses are needed for full protection. Health officials in Montreal gave a similar warning in 2007.

People born before 1970 likely gained protection by having measles in childhood.

A person with measles can infect others from four days before to four days after the onset of rash.

People who get measles generally recover fully after 10 days of sickness, but the effects — such as pneumonia and diarrhea — can be more severe for infants, the elderly and pregnant women.