Measles outbreaks claimed 72 lives in Europe in 2018, a two-fold increase, compared to 2017, due partly to low vaccination rates among some marginalised groups.

A total of 82,596 cases were recorded in 2018, three times more than the year before, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for Europe said on Thursday.

Measles is a highly contagious disease that is spread by coughing, sneezing, close personal contact or direct contact with infected nose or throat secretions.

Measles can sometimes lead to serious health complications, including infections of the lungs and brain.

The most vulnerable include unvaccinated young children and pregnant women, according to the WHO.

It said Romania reported 22 fatalities, Ukraine 15 and Serbia 14, according to the Copenhagen-based agency, citing data from 47 of 53 countries that reported hospitalisation numbers.

Ukraine had the highest number of cases, with 53,218, followed by Serbia, 5,076, Israel 2,919, France, 2,913 and Italy 2,517, the organization said.

WHO, however, said measures were being put in place to contain and curb further outbreaks.

It said the outbreaks included raising public awareness, immunising health care professionals and identifying individuals, who have been missed in the past.

“More than 90 per cent of cases were in 10 countries, including France, Italy and Greece,’’ it said.

Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said: “The picture for 2018 makes it clear that the current pace of progress in raising immunisation rates will be insufficient to stop measles circulation.

“While data indicate exceptionally high immunisation coverage at regional level, they also reflect a record number affected and killed by the disease.

“This means that gaps at local level still offer an open door to the virus.’’

The WHO says the 2018 surge in measles cases followed a year when European countries achieved their highest ever estimated coverage for the second dose of the measles vaccination by 90 per cent.

It noted that the percentage of children receiving the first dose of the vaccine also increased, to 95 per cent.