Ireland has lowest immunisation rate for measles in Western Europe, according to ECDC

Disease watchdog warns of risk of outbreaks due to vaccination gaps in some countries

Ireland has the lowest immunisation rate against measles in western Europe, according to a new report that warns of the threat of outbreaks in the region due to unvaccinated “pockets” in the population.

Both measles and polio could start spreading in Europe again unless immunisation rates improve, according to a report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

“Given the suboptimal vaccination coverage in several countries, it is likely that we will observe increases in the number of reported cases of measles across the EU/EEA in the future,” it warns.

Uptake for the first dose of the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine in Ireland has fallen in recent years, going from 92 per cent in 2020 to 90 per cent in 2021, the report shows.


Uptake of the second MMR doses is even lower, having fallen from 91 per cent for the 2019/20 school-year to 88 per cent for the 2020/21 school-year, according to the latest data from the Health Service Executive.

These rates, all well below the 95 per cent threshold recommended by the World Health Organisation to stop measles transmission, point to gaps in immunity, the HSE says.

Across Europe, vaccination rates against measles fell in Ireland and 14 other countries and went up in six.

Hungary and Luxembourg recorded 99 per cent vaccination rates for the first dose against measles; the average across Europe was 92.9 per cent. Most countries saw a fall-off in uptake for the second vaccine dose; no figures for second-dose uptake in Ireland were available.

Measles cases last year fell by 99 per cent compared to 2018, but the ECDC says this is likely due to the prevention and control measures implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The number of measles cases in Ireland declined from over 70 a year in 2018 and 2019 to 19 in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, and then to zero in 2021 and two last year, both of which were imported.

Just 127 cases were recorded in Europe last year. Cases were highest among babies aged under one year, who are too young to be vaccinated.

“The measles virus can find its way to spread in pockets of unprotected populations when vaccination coverage is suboptimal. This may lead to outbreaks that can create a burden on health systems, including in countries that have eliminated measles,” according to ECDC director Andrea Ammon.

The HSE is urging parents to make sure their children are up to date with their vaccines. “Timing matters, so it is important to get vaccinated on time and catch up on any missed doses as soon as possible so your family is protected. We need to act now to catch up on the children who missed out on their vaccines during the pandemic so we can restore immunisation levels to pre-pandemic levels and keep everyone safe,” says HSE immunisation lead Dr Lucy Jessop.

Measles is a highly infectious disease that causes a rash and high fever, and can be fatal in some cases.

About 2.4 million children may not have received the polio vaccine on time, the ECDC also says, leading to a risk of the virus being reintroduced into Europe.

Vaccination rates for polio in Ireland have remained relatively stable, with 94 per cent of one-year-olds receiving their third dose in 2021, compared to 96 per cent in 2014. An estimated 3,601 children were not protected against polio in 2021.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times