The UK has lost its “measles free” status according to the World Health Organisation – the first time it has happened since records began in 2012, with experts saying lives are at risk.
Three more European countries – Albania, Czech Republic and Greece – also lost their status as having eliminated measles from the population following a surge in cases across the continent.
By the end of last year, some 35 countries had achieved or sustained measles elimination, defined as the absence of circulating measles, in the presence of high vaccine coverage, along with good systems to identify cases of the disease.
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The WHO added the UK to the list in 2017, based on data from the previous three years.
However, last year there was a marked increase in measles with 991 confirmed cases in England and Wales, compared with just 284 cases in 2017.
Based on this, WHO determined that the UK could no longer be considered to have “eliminated” measles and that transmission of the disease had been re-established.
Just two imported cases of measles in Scotland were reported last year by Health Protection Scotland. However, three more cases were reported in the first three months of this year.
Europe as a whole has seen a surge in cases since 2018, with around 90,000 cases reported for the first half of this year – already more than that recorded in the whole of the previous year (84,462).
It comes as WHO said misinformation about vaccines, particularly that shared on social media, is as contagious and dangerous as the diseases it helps to spread.
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Dr Gunter Pfaff, chair of the European Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination, said: “Re-establishment of measles transmission is concerning. If high immunisation coverage is not achieved and sustained in every community, both children and adults will suffer unnecessarily and some will tragically die.”
Professor Martin Marshall, vice-chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said the findings were “disheartening”, coming soon after Unicef found more than 500,000 children in the UK remain unvaccinated against measles.
He said: “While take-up of the MMR vaccination across the UK are still high, it is not high enough, and we have actually seen a small decline in recent years. It is clear that we are still suffering from entirely debunked claims around MMR that were perpetuated in the '90s – and are now resurgent on social media and other online platforms.
“Work is continuing across the NHS to ensure messages about the safety, and life-saving nature of vaccinations are heard, and it is encouraging that WHO has increased its focus on measles elimination and upgraded action to address the challenges which have allowed this deadly virus to persist in countries including the UK.
“This, alongside a commitment by our Government to tackle a wave of dangerous anti-vax messages being shared online – particularly via social media – will hopefully go a long way in helping the country get back on track and regain our measles-free status.”
It comes as WHO welcomed a decision by social media company Pinterest to only provide evidence-based information from leading health experts to its users in a bid to tackle health misinformation. The company will give users resources from WHO and other public health organisations when they search for a related term.
Last year, the social platform stopped showing results for vaccine searches to tackle the spread of misinformation.
Social media companies are facing increasing scrutiny over how they moderate content on their sites. In recent months, other firms including Facebook have taken some steps to address vaccine misinformation.
Pinterest said in a statement: “We’re taking this approach because we believe that showing vaccine misinformation alongside resources from public health experts isn’t responsible. As we continue to tackle health misinformation, we remove it and the accounts that spread it from our service.
The firm also said it will not show ads, comments or recommendations on results pages for vaccine searches.
A WHO spokesperson said: “Social media platforms are the way many people get their information and they will likely be major sources of information for the next generations of parents We see this as a critical issue and one that needs our collective effort to protect people’s health and lives.”