Switzerland has one of the lowest measles immunisation rates in Europe, a health official says – far below the 95 per cent coverage needed to eliminate the disease.
As the country takes part in European Immunisation Week, Virginie Masserey, head of the vaccination section at the Federal Health Office, tells swissinfo.ch there are still many misconceptions about the measles jab.
A World Health Organization (WHO) initiative that starts on Saturday is highlighting the importance of immunisation against measles, which is highly infectious.
Switzerland suffered a three-year measles epidemic which finished in summer last year, in which there were more than 4,400 cases, with 339 hospitalisations and one death.
This was largely attributed to low vaccination rates. Currently 71 per cent of children aged two have received the recommended two doses of the jab and 87 per cent have had one dose. The WHO Europe region average for one dose is 94 per cent.
The WHO says 95 per cent coverage of two doses of the vaccine is needed to stamp out measles. It had set a goal of eliminating the disease in Europe by the end of 2010.
swissinfo.ch: What will the Federal Health Office be doing during immunisation week?
Virginie Masserey: We are mainly addressing parents of young children to inform them about the importance of vaccinating their children at the age recommended by the national immunisation schedule - that is one dose at the age of one and a second dose before the age of two.
This is to protect their own child as early as possible but also to protect other children who cannot be vaccinated because they have contraindications or because they have an immune deficiency or cannot respond correctly to the vaccine.
swissinfo.ch: How does Switzerland’s vaccination rate compare with its neighbours?
V.M.: Well actually in Europe Switzerland is one of the countries with the lowest immunisation rates for measles and it’s comparable to Austria and Germany in that respect.
swissinfo.ch: Why does Switzerland have this lower rate?
V.M.: There are different reasons which are cultural and have to do with what people believe. There are people who think that measles is a benign childhood disease and also believe that the vaccination may be more harmful than the disease or believe that the disease reinforces the immune defences of the child and is thus beneficial for development. But these are all wrong ideas and beliefs and we want to inform the population correctly about the issue.
Also some parents think that measles is only dangerous for adolescents and adults so they wait until the child is adolescent before vaccinating them. But this is dangerous behaviour because measles is also dangerous for small children.
So there is the potential for improving the vaccination rate because those parents who vaccinate their children later are not really against the vaccine but just haven’t really understood the importance of vaccinating early.
swissinfo.ch: What is your message?
V.M.: Although measles is often benign it really has the potential of being a severe disease especially for some people who are more vulnerable. So the goal is really to eliminate measles and for this 95 per cent of children need to be vaccinated with two doses before the age of two.
swissinfo.ch: There has actually been some improvement in the measles vaccination figures in the past few years.
V.M.: Indeed. The very long outbreak we experienced over the past three years seems to have raised awareness and probably also prompted efforts by doctors and the cantonal medical officers to promote this vaccination. We have been observing improvements in the cantons over the past three years. For example in Basel Country the vaccination rate for at least one dose at age two has increased from 85 per cent to 92 per cent.
swissinfo.ch: When do you hope to achieve the goal of 95 per cent?
V.M.: We are now setting up a national strategy with our partners and we have a goal of achieving the targeted rates by the end of 2012.
Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch
In Europe around once every hour a child becomes infected with measles. It is one of the most important causes of childhood mortality worldwide, causing about 240,000 deaths globally each year.
The first sign of measles is usually a high fever, which begins about 10-12 days after exposure to the virus, and lasts 4-7 days. A runny nose, a cough, red and watery eyes, and small white spots inside the cheeks can develop in the initial stage. After several days, a rash erupts. On average, the rash occurs 14 days after exposure to the virus.
There is no specific treatment for measles and most people recover within 2–3 weeks. However, particularly in malnourished children and people with reduced immunity, measles can cause serious complications.
The European Immunisation Week (EIW) is led and coordinated by WHO/Europe and implemented by member states. The fifth EIW will takes place April 24-May 1.
It is the second time that Switzerland is participating. It has an information campaign, including a brochure and a special website (see links). Many cantons and health organisations have signed up.
More than a decade ago, member states adopted a regional goal of eliminating measles and rubella by 2010 in Europe. Most countries have implemented successful strategies, which have resulted in historically low levels of measles incidence, with less than 10 cases per million population in 2007–2009 and the virtual elimination of measles in a number of countries.
But momentum on this important target has stalled, the WHO says. Measles has made a comeback in some western European countries, owing to children not being immunised either on time or at all. In North and South America measles has already been eliminated.