GENEVA (Reuters) - Soccer fans traveling to Switzerland and Austria in June need to check whether they have been vaccinated against measles, and get jabs if their immunity is unclear, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
The twin Alpine hosts of the Euro 2008 tournament, which runs from June 7 to 29, are both experiencing measles outbreaks. Health experts fear the highly contagious disease could spread further if those watching the matches are not fully protected.
“There is a big worry in a stadium environment where you have 30,000 people very close to each other,” said Hayatee Hasan, a spokeswoman for the United Nations agency based in Geneva, one of eight host cities for the major sporting event.
The organizers UEFA expect 5 million people to come to the Euro 2008 events, including Swiss and Austrian fans.
Some 2,250 people in Switzerland have been infected with measles since the current outbreak began in November 2006 in the canton of Lucerne, where vaccination coverage is only 78 percent — below the 95 percent minimum level recommended by the WHO.
The disease, which causes 242,000 deaths a year, spread from Switzerland to Austria, which has had about 200 cases, and to Denmark, Germany, Norway and in Arizona and California in the United States. A small outbreak in France may also be linked.
Most of those infected have been school-age children who were unvaccinated or received only one of the two jabs needed to reach full immunity, mainly due to parents’ opposition to the measles vaccine, which is often combined with mumps and rubella.
Public health experts, who argue that fears about vaccine safety are unfounded, say everyone needs two doses of measles vaccine — generally both administered in childhood — to be protected and to avoid transmitting the disease to others.
The WHO’s Hasan said that anyone who is not sure they already received the two jabs ought to be vaccinated before going to the European Football Championships.
“They need to receive the two doses of measles vaccine, and they need to do this before traveling,” she said.
Just over 1 million stadium seats have been sold for matches between Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden and Turkey.
Fans will also get to watch the Euro 2008 matches on large outdoor screens in host cities Geneva, Zurich, Berne, Basel, Innsbruck, Salzburg, Klagenfurt and Vienna.
Measles infections normally start with a high fever followed by the development of a rash, normally appearing on the face and upper neck. Its sometimes deadly complications can include blindness, the brain infection encephalitis, and pneumonia.
The disease is most dangerous for poorly nourished young children, and those with immune systems weakened by HIV/AIDS. Almost all measles deaths occur in impoverished countries.
Edited by Richard Meares