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As measles crisis grows, Ukraine turns to priests and vaccination teams

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Lviv (Ukraine) (AFP)

At a recent meeting with priests in the western city of Lviv, paediatrician Kateryna Bulavinova pleaded with the clergy to help halt a worsening measles crisis in Ukraine.

Addressing a dozen priests at a Lviv seminary, Bulavinova urged them to lead by example by getting themselves and their children vaccinated.

"Imagine the shock of parishioners if a priest died of measles," said Bulavinova, a consultant with UN children's agency UNICEF.

It's a message officials are hoping will have an impact in the deeply religious region, the hardest hit in a measles outbreak that saw Ukraine record the world's highest increase in cases last year.

The ex-Soviet country of 45 million recorded more than 35,000 measles cases in 2018 and another 24,000 people were infected in the first two months of 2019, UNICEF said in a report on Friday. At least 30 people have died since 2017, it said.

Authorities blame a combination of factors including shortages of vaccine supplies and cuts to health services amid an economic slowdown exacerbated by a five-year conflict with Moscow-backed separatists.

But especially worrying is an anti-vaccination sentiment that has grown up in Ukraine, often driven by online campaigns spreading false information about the risks of being vaccinated.

In Lviv, a picture postcard city of 720,000 people on the border with European Union member Poland, local authorities have joined forces with international organisations to launch a series of vaccination efforts.

- 'Extraordinary measures' -

As well as meeting with clergy, officials are promoting the importance of vaccination at parent-teacher conferences and doctors' offices and sending mobile vaccination teams to rural schools.

"The measles outbreak is all over the world, but Ukraine is sadly the leader among European countries," Deputy Health Minister Olga Stefanyshyna said on a recent visit to Lviv.

"That is why we are taking extraordinary measures."

During a previous outbreak in 2017 authorities had discovered that some 800,000 children had not been vaccinated, Stefanyshyna said.

"These children can get measles at any moment now."

Lviv paediatrician Volodymyr Rak said he had not seen a single case of measles until recently, only reading about the disease in textbooks.

"I thought I would never see a case of measles," he said as he prepared to vaccinate children at a clinic in the city centre.

"Now there are hundreds of them in Lviv."

Last year, nearly 11,500 measles cases were recorded in the Lviv region, a 125-fold increase from only 92 cases in 2017. As of late February, authorities had recorded more 3,700 cases.

Measles is a highly contagious virus that spreads through the air and infects the respiratory tract. It is also highly resilient and can be contracted up to two hours after an infected person has left a room.

Once someone is infected, there is no specific treatment, but measles is easily preventable with a vaccination.

In the Lviv region, anti-vaccination sentiment was strong.

"I had refused the measles vaccination before. I thought it would be better that way," said Ulyana Dzyuba, a mother of two.

But the growing outbreak changed her mind.

She recently brought her nine-year-old daughter Maryana and six-year-old son Volodymyr to a mobile medical team at a school in the village of Lapaivka outside Lviv, where they were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella.

- 'I worry so much' -

The 36-year-old said that while her daughter contracted measles when she was three and developed immunity, her son was not protected.

"I worry about my son so much," she said. "This will be their first vaccination."

Of more than 630 children at the Lapaivka school only 13 remained unvaccinated, said principal Tetyana Maleryk, chalking up the result to efforts by teachers and doctors to promote awareness.

"The number of vaccine refusals has gone down," said Maleryk.

UNICEF praised the campaign launched in western Ukraine and said efforts to fight "vaccine hesitancy" were crucial.

"Almost all of these cases are preventable, and yet children are getting infected even in places where there is simply no excuse," UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said in the statement.

"Measles may be the disease, but, all too often, the real infection is misinformation, mistrust and complacency."

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