In Italy, during the course of the past century to the present-day, measles incidence underwent a remarkable decreasing trend that started well before the introduction of the national immunization programme. In this work, we aim at examining to what extent both the demographic transition, characterized by declining mortality and fertility rates over time, and the vaccination programme are responsible for the observed epidemiological pattern. Making use of a non-stationary, age-structured disease transmission model, we show that in the pre-vaccination era, from 1901 to 1982, the decline in birth rates has resulted in a drastic decrease in the effective transmission rate, which in turn has determined a declining trend of measles incidence (from 25.2 to 10.3 infections per 1000 individuals). However, since 1983, vaccination appears to have become the major contributing factor in the decrease of measles incidence, which otherwise would have remained stable as a consequence of the nearly constant birth rates. This led to a remarkable decrease in the effective transmission rate, to a level well below the critical threshold for disease persistence. These findings call for the adoption of epidemiological models, which deviate the age structure from stationary equilibrium solutions, to better understand the biology of infectious diseases and evaluate immunization programmes.
Keywords: demography; infectious diseases; population dynamics.