The sad inevitability of Ukraine’s measles outbreak

An outbreak of measles in Ukraine is rapidly spreading. This year there have been 1,000 cases; that’s 20 times higher than the whole of last year, with measles reported among children, adolescents and adults in 14 of the country’s 24 provinces.

Sadly, this latest outbreak doesn’t come as a surprise.

According to 2016 data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), Ukraine ranks last in terms of vaccination coverage in Europe. At the end of last year, fewer than 50 percent of one year olds had been vaccinated against measles.

The solution sounds easy; parents need to immunise their children against this deadly disease, it’s the only way to be protected. But in Ukraine, the problem is always more complicated.

Five children in winter clothing sit on a bench.
UNICEF ZmeyVasyl, 8 (left), Roman, 7, Valentyna, 9, grandchild Ivan, 7, and Misha, 17, wait to receive immunisations at the General Practice Clinic in Bohorodchany, Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, Ukraine.

Low levels of coverage are the result not only of parents’ choice but of limited availability of vaccines over the past seven years. In addition, the myths about vaccination as being potentially harmful, and the lack of consultation among parents and health workers, meant that Ukraine’s coverage against measles dramatically dropped from 97 percent in 2007 to 42 percent in 2016.

Many children have become hostages of parents who for years have refused vaccinations. There is no collective immunity, and this threatens the lives of children. For example, children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons are more vulnerable to infectious diseases such as measles. They need to be protected from siblings and their peers who may carry the disease.

So what can be done?

Vaccines are now available

Clearly there need to be enough vaccines in the country so parents can take their children to be immunised. And there is progress in making this a reality.

UNICEF has delivered vaccines at the request of the Ministry of Health since 2016.

This includes more than 1.7 million doses of the MMR vaccine; a combination of measles, mumps and rubella, which is quality assured by WHO and registered in Ukraine.

There are now sufficient vaccines in the country for children who are scheduled to receive them, according to the approved calendar, as well as for those who may have missed their routine immunisations.

To further bolster the supply, nearly 600,000 additional doses of MMR vaccine will be delivered by the end of August.

Do not delay vaccinating children

So if the vaccine supply is now available and distributed across the regions, why are children still not protected?

I’ve been shocked by some national media outlets and bloggers, who for years promoted anti-vaccine messages and spread rumours that were not scientifically proven.

A health worker puts a stethoscope against the bare chest of a baby while his mother holds him.
UNICEF ZmeyHalyna Yarych, 43, watches Dr. Nataliya Seredyuk checking her five-month-old baby Alexander prior to administering him immunisations at the General Practice Clinic in Bohorodchany, Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, Ukraine.

Following the death of two children during this current outbreak, these same people are now raising the alarm and calling for parents to vaccinate.

It should not take the death of children to understand the effectiveness of a simple health intervention, which could have prevented this tragedy. For the families affected it’s too late.

The positive news is that the trend shows parents are more inclined to vaccinate their children today than nine years ago. More than 76 percent of parents now support vaccination in Ukraine. Surveys also prove that as parents are better informed about the risks of diseases, they are more likely to support vaccination. But we still need to do better.

UNICEF is encouraging parents to check the status of their child’s vaccinations. If it’s time to get immunised, or if a child has missed vaccinations, then parents need to act now.

At the same time, UNICEF is working with doctors and nurses to encourage them to be proactive in organizing vaccination-days for children, to invite parents to vaccinate and to advise them on relevant issues.

Through UNICEF’s monitoring system it is clear that hundreds of thousands of children are still unprotected. This needs to change. Vaccination is a right for every child to be protected and healthy.


Giovanna Barberis is the UNICEF Representative in Ukraine


Measles is a dangerous highly contagious infection that is transmitted from person to person by airborne droplets. A dangerous consequence of measles may be pneumonia, diarrhoea, or encephalitis. It can lead to death.

Measles infects unvaccinated children, adolescents and adults. The fastest it spreads in children’s groups is through kindergartens, schools, summer camps. According to the vaccine calendar in Ukraine, vaccinations are carried out at one and six years of age. Read more about the Ukraine vaccination schedule here.



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