- Last year, measles cases increased by 30% across the globe, according to a new report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- The Americas, the Eastern Mediterranean Region, and Europe saw the biggest increases in the disease.
- The alarming spike is due to “gaps” in vaccine coverage, a WHO statement said.
- Measles is highly contagious and can be fatal, but it’s preventable with vaccination.
Cases of highly contagious measles surged 30% all across the world last year, according to a new report published Friday by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The alarming uptick was fuelled by “gaps” in vaccination coverage, a WHO statement said.
Five of the six WHO world regions saw increases in the disease, with the Americas, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Europe reporting the biggest jumps in cases. The Western Pacific was the only region that saw a decrease in measles infections.
“The resurgence of measles is of serious concern, with extended outbreaks occurring across regions, and particularly in countries that had achieved, or were close to achieving measles elimination,” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, deputy director general for programs at the WHO, said in the statement.
This surge occurred amid a backdrop of long-term progress against the disease: Since 2000, reported measles cases and measles deaths have dropped by 80% globally, the report said.
But last year’s increase in measles cases could threaten that trend.
“Without urgent efforts to increase vaccination coverage and identify populations with unacceptable levels of under-, or unimmunized children, we risk losing decades of progress in protecting children and communities against this devastating, but entirely preventable disease,” Swaminathan said in the WHO statement.
There’s a highly effective vaccine against measles
The illness causes symptoms like fever and rash, and in some cases may lead to severe, potentially fatal complications like the lung infection pneumonia or swelling of the brain.
But “gaps” in vaccine coverage – a measure of the percentage of people who’ve received a given vaccination – are contributing to rising measles cases, the WHO statement said. Global coverage for the first dose has stalled at 85%, which is well below the target of 95% required to prevent outbreaks, the statement added.
“The increase in measles cases is deeply concerning, but not surprising,” Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said in a statement about the new measles report. “Complacency about the disease and the spread of falsehoods about the vaccine in Europe, a collapsing health system in Venezuela and pockets of fragility and low immunization coverage in Africa are combining to bring about a global resurgence of measles after years of progress.”
Measles was declared eliminated in the US, but new outbreaks have cropped up in recent years
Before the MMR vaccine was invented, about 3 to 4 million Americans got measles every year, resulting in an estimated 400-500 deaths, according to the CDC. But today, because of the vaccine, there’s been a more than 99% reduction in measles cases in the US.
Measles was even declared eliminated in the US in 2000, but outbreaks have continued since then. They can occur when an infected person travels to the US from another country, and the virus can spread if it reaches communities where people aren’t vaccinated.
In November, for example, 17 children in New York City came down with measles after the virus spread in schools with unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated children. Last year, 75 people came down with measles in a Minnesota Somali-American community with “poor vaccination coverage,” according to the CDC. And in 2014, the US saw 23 measles outbreaks, including one that sickened 383 people primarily in unvaccinated Amish communities.
Meanwhile, the MMR vaccine has been targeted by the anti-vaccination movement, thanks to a discredited belief that the shot causes autism. (A 1998 study that claimed to find a link between the vaccine and the condition has since been retracted, and a wealth of evidence shows that vaccines don’t cause autism.)
Currently, the US still has very low rates of vaccine-preventable diseases, according to the CDC.
But recent outbreaks in the US and across the globe still represent a worrying increase in a vaccine-preventable disease.
“Existing strategies need to change: more effort needs to go into increasing routine immunization coverage and strengthening health systems,” Berkley said in the statement. “Otherwise we will continue chasing one outbreak after another.”
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