Measles and migrants


Girl with measles_480p

In the past two years, Europe has recorded more than 22,000 cases of measles: a sharp reversal of the 96% decline of the last 20 years. Why is it happening and who is at risk? New LSE research sheds some light on the issue.

As 2015 draws to a close, Europe is set to fail a crucial health test set by the World Health Organization – to eliminate measles from its entire population. This is despite one of the most successful vaccination programmes the world has ever seen.

The reasons for Europe falling short of its goal are complex and varied, but recent outbreaks in a number of countries are putting increasing pressure on the region to close the immunisation gaps which cause it to fall below the recommended 95% coverage level.

Pockets of vulnerable groups have been identified, including orthodox religious communities, Roma and Irish travellers, and people who do not believe in vaccination.

Another group thought to be at risk of remaining unvaccinated are migrants. To date, there has been little systematic research on this issue, but LSE researchers have recently led a comprehensive literature review on vaccination coverage among European migrants.

In a paper published online in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health this month, Gemma Williams from LSE Health along with colleagues from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands, highlight the potential vulnerability of some migrants to measles.

“Some migrants in Europe may have poor access to health services due to a range of legal, economic, linguistic and cultural barriers,” she said. “This means that a percentage of them may remain unvaccinated and at risk.”

“However, our report findings show there is little evidence to support the view that migrants overall have a higher burden of measles,” Gemma said. “This is contrary to perceptions that are widespread in some quarters. Nonetheless, there are concerns over low MMR vaccination coverage in some migrant groups and this leaves pockets of them vulnerable to measles outbreaks.”

In order to eliminate measles in Europe, groups at risk need to be targeted with specific health information and disease prevention campaigns, the researchers say. With many countries in Europe experiencing an increase in their migrant populations, it is important for governments to understand migrant’s health needs in order to develop appropriate health system responses.

A paper released by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) this month also highlights health fears for refugees fleeing war-torn countries for Europe.

The collapse of the health system in Syria, in particular, has left thousands of children unvaccinated and vulnerable to measles.

Overcrowding in refugee camps has also given rise to the risk of other infectious diseases, including polio, diphtheria and tuberculosis.

Ms Williams is currently working on a paper due to be published in early 2016 on health risks to Syrian refugees.


Gemma Williams from the London School of Economics and Political Science is the lead author of “Measles among migrants in the European Union and the European Economic Area”. Researchers from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Harvard University, University of Parma and University of Amsterdam also contributed to the paper. The research was funded by the ECDC.

To interview Gemma Williams please email her at

Gemma Williams is a Research Officer at LSE Health whose main research interests are in health behaviours, health financing, equity in access to health care, and migrant health. Gemma has previously worked as an economist in the Rwandan Ministry of Health and for an HIV/AIDS NGO in India where she undertook impact evaluations of health interventions. She holds an MSc in International Development from the Universiteit van Amsterdam and a BA in Economics from the University of Sheffield.

December 2015