The Story Behind The Worst Measles Outbreak In The European Union : Goats and Soda Europe is experiencing a record outbreak of measles, a disease that has been vaccine-preventable since 1963. And in the EU, Romania is ground zero.
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The Story Behind The Worst Measles Outbreak In The European Union

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The Story Behind The Worst Measles Outbreak In The European Union

The Story Behind The Worst Measles Outbreak In The European Union

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases in the world. But it's been preventable since a vaccine was introduced in 1963. So public health officials are surprised that Europe is now reporting tens of thousands of new cases in recent years. Joanna Kakissis has our story from Romania, which has the largest outbreak in the European Union.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hello.

LILIANA CZEGLEDI: Hello - Liliana.

KAKISSIS: Liliana Czegledi lives along a country road just outside the city of Timisoara in western Romania. It's here where neighborhood kids play ball in the grass that she doted on her daughter, who could not eat or walk on her own. She'd push the girl's wheelchair around the yard.

CZEGLEDI: (Through interpreter) And I'd sing her favorite song, the one about the ducks. She'd laugh so much and smile. I wanted her to feel good. (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: That's when she's little? Aw. Look at her. Look at her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Yeah. She has beautiful eyes.

She pulls out a photo of a girl with feathery, blonde hair and a big smile sitting in a custom-made stroller. Czegledi's eyes fill with tears.

CZEGLEDI: (Through interpreter) I miss Ioana. She was my whole universe.

KAKISSIS: Ioana had a compromised immune system, a damaged heart, muscles that did not work.

CZEGLEDI: (Through interpreter) I made sure she never caught a cold because the doctor said a cold could kill her. I only brought her into the hospital when it was absolutely necessary.

KAKISSIS: Like last year, just a month before Ioana was to turn 10, when she had to go to the hospital because she was badly dehydrated. She caught measles there. And within a week, she had died.

Dr. Virgil Musta ran the measles ward at the infectious diseases hospital where eight Romanians died that same year.

VIRGIL MUSTA: Almost all were children - unvaccinated. They couldn't be vaccinated because of their illnesses. When they get contact with the virus, they get the disease. And the final was the death.

KAKISSIS: Ioana's compromised immune system had prevented her from getting vaccinated. Another 58 Romanians, many of them children, have died since a measles epidemic broke out here in 2016. More than 15,000 have caught the virus - nearly half of the total recorded infections in the EU since 2016.

Dr. Dragan Jankovic of the World Health Organization is shocked because Europe seemed on the verge of eradicating measles.

DRAGAN JANKOVIC: We have high-quality vaccines since '60s, '70s, which are routinely used in all countries in the region. And we would expect to see that the population in the region is protected.

KAKISSIS: And to be protected, 95 percent of the population must be vaccinated. Immunization rates had dropped to 80 percent in Romania in the years before the outbreak. Public health officials suspect a big reason is a loss of faith in vaccines.

SANDRA ALEXIU: There's lots of fake doctors and fake news on vaccination or on any other medical subject.

KAKISSIS: That's family doctor Sandra Alexiu. And she's heard examples of that fake news in her practice outside Bucharest, that the measles vaccine is made of mercury or fetal cells or that there is an international conspiracy to lower the population.

ALEXIU: And we try to explain to every parents that these are wrong. You have to know what's right.

KAKISSIS: And this is a big part of what Romania is doing to control the current outbreak, talking to as many parents as possible. Dr. Alexiu tells them her own son is vaccinated. His photo is in her exam room.

He's that little boy there in the bow tie and the jacket.

ALEXIU: Yes. Yes. He's not so little anymore.

KAKISSIS: But doctors cannot convince everyone, including engineers Lavinia and Dan Onica. They say they just don't believe vaccines are safe for kids.

LAVINIA ONICA: All the toxic substances that they use and the way they make your body react, that was scary for us. And yeah. We didn't want to take the chance to risk our kid's healthy life.

KAKISSIS: Outreach efforts and a national awareness campaign have pushed measles coverage here to about 90 percent. But health officials say that's still not high enough to prevent another outbreak. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Timisoara, Romania.

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