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ISIS And Anti-Vaxxers To Blame For Global Measles Outbreak

The small but loud anti-vaccination lobby is not the only one wearing the blame for the "alarming" global measles outbreak. Experts says the Islamic State has played a role too.

On Friday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) linked Europe's record number of measles cases last year to a growing trend in parents refusing to vaccinate their children.

It comes as the city of Washington in the United States declared a measles state of emergency, and the measles death toll in south-east Asia continues to rise.

"Measles worldwide is on the rise and it has been alarming," Professor Kristine Macartney, Director of National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance (NCIRS) told 10 daily.

Image: Getty Images

Last year 82,600 people in 47 European countries contracted measles. This is the highest number in a decade.

WHO recognised that in parts of Europe, vaccinations are growing, but the organisation says countries such as Ukraine and Romania have regressed.

"For example in Romania there have been prominent and profiled people in the media speaking against vaccines and that is having a real influence on people's perceptions," Macartney said.

Measles is a potentially deadly infection that is most common for small children. The disease is so contagious that 90 percent of people close to someone who is not immune will be infected. It is also easily preventable through vaccination.

In 2017 there were 110,000 deaths globally from measles.

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Measles immunisation coverage has fallen in a dozen European Union countries since 2010, and 70 percent of countries with the lowest vaccine confidence in the world were in Europe.

"Progress has been uneven between and within countries, leaving increasing clusters of susceptible individuals unprotected, and resulting in a record number of people affected by the virus in 2018," WHO said in a statement.

Political Unrest And The Spread Of Measles

An outbreak of measles is spreading across the Philippines -- with more than 1,500 cases of the disease and 26 deaths reported in recent weeks

"We are seeing some very large outbreaks of measles at the moment especially in places like the Philippines, Ukraine, Romania and Africa," Professor Raina MacIntyre, a biosecurity expert at the University of New South Wales said.

MacIntyre says the disease outbreak in the Philippines started in 2016 at a time when there was conflict with Islamic state rebels in the country's south.

ISIS-affiliated groups took control of the southern city of Marawi in 2017, leading to a five-month battle between the rebels and the Philippines military forces. IMAGE: Getty

Macartney agrees that ISIS activity "definitely has an impact."

Whether its Islamic State in the Philippines or the Rohinyga crisis where we have seen major health problems, that sort of instability affects outbreaks and public health infrastructure and programs take a back seat.

Filipino health officials said the relatively low number of measles vaccinations in the country could also be attributed to the aborted Dengvaxia vaccination program that began in 2016.

This lead to distrust in vaccinations after concerns were made public by the manufacturers regarding its potential side effects.

The United States and Australia: Travel Is The Danger

On Friday, the governor of Washington state declared a state of emergency over a measles outbreak that sickened dozens of people in a county with one of the state's lowest vaccination rates.

Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement that the outbreak"creates an extreme public health risk" that could spread throughout the state.

Under Inslee's declaration, state agencies can use all available resources to help affected areas and additional medical resources can be requested from other states.

READ MORE: Measles Outbreak Spreads Across Four Australian States

"A lot of the carriers are young adults and children who are travelling and then bring it back home. The outbreak in Washington and New York at the moment is being linked to travel to Israel and Ukraine," MacIntyre said.

Over the past three months, Australia has also seen a spate of measles cases.

"We are feeling this in every country even if at a national level we have good health policies in place. Even here in Australia, we have to be extra vigilant," Macartney said.

In 2014, WHO declared that Australia had eliminated measles.

"(But) that's not to say we will never get it again it means that we don't have it continuously spreading around the country," Macartney said.

Latest data from NCIRS shows that 94.6 percent of Australian five-year-olds are fully immunised. The WHO safety benchmark is that 95 percent of the population be immunised.

Both Macartney and MacIyntre agree that Australia's biggest carriers are the pockets of not vaccinated or 'under-vaccinated' older children, adolescents and young adults.

"In Australia, they are the people our public policies should be targeting, it's not just about babies and toddlers," MacIntyre said.

IMAGE: Getty Images

This age group is also geographically mobile, which makes them more likely to contract and spread infectious disease.

"In their 20's they are the ones going off backpacking and its really hard to tell young people who are healthy and impervious that they need to top up their vaccinations," Macartney said.

Depending on the relevant state and territory health departments, in Australia, there are some governmen-funded catch up vaccination programs for refugees and migrants.

Young adults who aren't covered by these schemes would be out of pocket between $20 and $50 to get vaccinated. In comparison, other immunisation requirements are more costly sitting at at around $200.

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au