The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Stupid decisions are to blame for Europe’s record measles rate

A pediatrician holds a dose of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

MEASLES, A highly contagious disease caused by a virus, once killed 2.6 million people a year. Thanks to a safe and effective vaccine, which has been in use for a half-century, global deaths declined to 89,780 in 2016. But even with this vaccine , measles cases are now hitting a record high in Europe. This is a warning of the costs of ignorance, war and complacency.

The World Health Organization reported Monday that more than 41,000 people in the organization’s European region have been infected with measles in the first half of this year, far in excess of the total for every other year in this decade and way above the 23,927 cases in 2017. At least 37 people have died. Seven nations have seen more than 1,000 infections: France, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine.

Ukraine has the most people affected, 23,000, more than half Europe’s total . Measles is spread by coughing, sneezing and “close personal contact or direct contact with infected nasal or throat secretions,” the WHO says. In a report, the WHO said although there has been a noticeable uptick in vaccination coverage in Ukraine, of the laboratory-confirmed cases last year, more than three-fourths had no history of immunization. These people were sitting ducks for the disease, and the story is much the same elsewhere — the unvaccinated are vulnerable. The cases have occurred in all regions of Ukraine, but part of the blame must rest on the war Russia instigated in early 2014 that has engulfed the southeastern part of the country. The WHO says that, to prevent outbreaks, at least 95 percent immunization coverage is necessary.

Measles was eliminated in the United States by 2000 with widespread use of the vaccine. Extensive research has disproved the fears of a link between vaccination and autism, but ignorance and unfounded suspicions persist. In recent years, outbreaks have been caused by unvaccinated Americans and by foreigners bringing the virus to the United States after becoming infected abroad. This year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 107 cases in 21 states and the District, fewer than the big outbreak of 2014 with 667 cases, but still worrisome.

Meanwhile, vaccination fears are driving Italy toward folly. An amendment approved by the Italian Senate this month, supported by the populist government, suspends a requirement that parents provide proof of 10 routine vaccinations when enrolling their children in nurseries or preschools. The lower house is expected to vote next month. If approved, more people will go without immunization. Some will die. It should not be allowed to happen.

Read more:

Ronald A. Klain: Are we ready for an epidemic this summer?

The Post’s View: The measles vaccine is a shot of common sense

The Post’s View: Another measles outbreak that didn’t have to happen

Letters: Combating misinformation about vaccines

Letters: Education is critical to vaccinations and preventing diseases