With the number of cases of measles growing in Europe, health authorities are urging everyone to make sure they are vaccinated against the potentially deadly disease. Migrants are especially at risk, as studies have shown they have lower immunization rates than European-born individuals. Marion MacGregor reports.
Every migrant who arrives at a reception centre in Germany receives a compulsory medical check-up. During the examination, the doctors check if they are ill and need treatment and whether they have been immunized. If not, they will offer the necessary vaccinations.
The federal health ministry urges all migrants, adults and children, to be vaccinated: “Vaccinations effectively protect people against diseases caused by bacteria and viruses. If a large number of people are vaccinated against certain infectious diseases, these can no longer spread across the population.”
Those who do not have a record of which vaccinations they have already received will be given a vaccination card or an immunization certificate by the doctor.
In Germany, there are recommendations about when certain vaccinations should be given. Some vaccines need to be administered several times to achieve effective protection. The health ministry advises migrants to seek information from medical personnel in the reception centre.
Why is vaccination important now?
Measles is spreading again in Europe. In the German city of Cologne, 90 cases have been confirmed since the start of the year, tens times the number in the same period in 2017. Those affected include babies as young as six months, up to adults over 60 years of age.
The head of Cologne’s health department, Dr Harald Rau, has issued an appeal to “Protect your children, yourself, and our city,” echoing calls across Europe for more people to be vaccinated against measles as well as other preventable diseases.
Measles, which starts with high fever and a cough but can quickly develop into a life-threatening condition, is highly infectious. It is effectively and easily prevented with a double dose of a vaccine. However, some people are choosing not to be immunized, some are unaware of the dangers and still others, including some migrants, are missing out on the opportunity to be vaccinated.
Immunization could save up to 3 million more lives a year
The number of measles cases has risen across Germany as well as in Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Romania, Cyprus, France, Ireland and the Czech Republic. In the 12 months to the end of February 2018, there were at more than 14,800 cases reported in the EU.
Public health experts say that to stop the spread of the disease, 95% of the population should be immunized. But coverage is varied throughout the region. This is partly because governments have taken different approaches to whether vaccination against diseases like measles should be mandatory. In some countries in Europe, vaccination is compulsory, while in others, like Germany, the decision is left up to the individual.
This has led to a growing number of people who refuse to immunize, believing, for example, that vaccines can cause illnesses such as autism in children. However, the European health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, recently spoke out strongly against such vaccination-sceptics, saying they were spreading false information and contributing to the spread of disease. “There is no vaccine against fake news,” he said.
Low immunization rates among migrants and refugees
Growing rates of measles and other infectious diseases put migrants and refugees at greater health risk. International studies have shown that migrants in Europe have lower immunization rates than those born here. This is partly due to low vaccination coverage in countries of origin. But access to immunization in the host country can also be a problem.
Many vaccines require multiple doses at regular times, while migrants are often transient. Migrants also lack information about their immunization status. And sometimes, they do not seek medical care because they fear legal consequences.
According to Germany’s Ethno-Medical Centre (Ethno-Medizinischen Zetrums e.V.), children who arrive in the country at a young age are often only partially vaccinated when they start school. This is partly because many migrants cannot speak German well enough to understand how the health system works.
Health authorities in Europe need to focus their efforts on these problems, according to the World Health Organization. A 2017 WHO report recommends that more work be done in “improving health literacy among migrants and refugees, providing information materials in the migrants’ languages, and offering adequate training and culturally relevant information to health-care providers.”
Further information about vaccination
The Robert Koch Institute prepares a list of annually updated vaccination recommendations, which sets out the standard vaccinations that are advisable at a particular age.
They also publish an immunization schedule in 20 languages.
A multilingual guide to vaccination, including information about the risks and side-effects, can be found here.