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Swiss reject German measles fears

Measles is normally a childhood disease

(Keystone)

Swiss medical experts have dismissed warnings by German paediatricians that children travelling to Switzerland over the Easter holiday should be vaccinated against measles.

The Federal Health Office says German doctors have overreacted to outbreaks of the disease in two cantons.

"I think the problem is somewhat exaggerated," Hans Peter Zimmermann of the Federal Health Office told swissinfo. "In general, the situation in Germany is no different from here."

Germany sounded the alarm after cantons Valais and Schwyz recorded 110 and 60 cases of measles respectively. Other cantons were hit to a lesser extent.

Epidemic

The number of cases was still enough for the authorities to declare there was an "epidemic" in some areas.

"We have seen a significant increase in cases since the beginning of March," admitted Zimmermann.

This was enough for German paediatricians to issue warnings to travellers.

"Not all children are vaccinated against measles in Germany," said Klaus Gritz, of president of the German Association of Paediatricians.

"They have to be careful if they are going to Switzerland where there's an epidemic."

People who contract measles can suffer from brain damage, pneumonia or even die. Vaccination has, however, been linked by some experts to autism or an increase in allergies among children.

Travel warning

Gritz admits his knowledge of the Swiss outbreaks is sketchy, but says the risk of infection means the warning is justified.

"Only people who have been vaccinated against measles or have just had it should travel to Switzerland," he told swissinfo.

However, Zimmermann says this is overdoing it since the epidemic has centred so far on just two cantons and has hardly spread to other parts of the country.

He added that the Germans should pay more attention to their own backyard. "There are measles outbreaks there too," he said.

Gritz rejected the charge, saying there were no measles epidemics in Germany. But he added that an infected traveller returning from abroad would be enough to start one.

Immunisation

While both countries sides seem to disagree on the dangers presented by the Swiss measles outbreaks, they do agree on one point: immunisation in both countries is insufficient.

Around 80 per cent of all children in Germany and Switzerland have been vaccinated against measles.

This is comparable to France and Austria and better than Italy where there has been a major outbreak, but less than other European countries.

To avoid epidemics, Gritz and Zimmerman agree that coverage would have to be around 95 per cent.

"We had two outbreaks in the Eighties and Nineties with up to 10,000 cases," Zimmermann told swissinfo. "If the coverage doesn't improve, we have to expect more epidemics of this kind."

Measles outbreak

Gritz says epidemics are a cyclical phenomenon. "All the children who are not immunised in a given area come down with measles at the same time," he said.

"Once they've had it, though, they are like the others who were vaccinated, meaning we can expect no new outbreaks for a while."

The health authorities would like vaccination coverage for measles to reach 95 per cent, but admit that a lack of public awareness means this target will be difficult to reach.

Zimmerman admits that fears about possible side effects are also proving a hurdle to extending the vaccination programme.

"As the number of measles' cases drops, the side effects have taken on greater importance in people's minds," he said. "They don't understand the bigger risks involved in passing up vaccination."

swissinfo, Scott Capper

In brief

Swiss doctors have dismissed warnings by German paediatricians that children travelling to Switzerland should be vaccinated against measles.

Germany sounded the alarm after cantons Valais and Schwyz recorded 110 and 60 cases of measles respectively.

The number of cases was still enough for the authorities to declare there was an "epidemic" in some areas.

Around 80 per cent of all children in Germany and Switzerland have been vaccinated against measles.

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