‘We’re backsliding’: Surge in measles cases reported globally

More than 140,000 people died from measles worldwide in 2018, say health officials, adding they’re alarmed by the rapid increase in the easily preventable disease.

The measles virus is highly contagious. It  can cause coughing, rashes and fever, and lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia and encephalitis, or brain swelling, especially in children younger than five years old. 

The number of measles cases surged globally last year, the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention reported Thursday.

“Our finding is that in 2018, there’s been an increase in both the cases and the deaths that have occurred by measles,” Dr. Kate O’Brien, director of WHO’s immunization program, said in a video release.

“In other words, we’re backsliding.”

Measles can be prevented with a safe and effective vaccine that’s been used for 50 years, but vaccination rates have stagnated in certain countries for a variety of reasons, O’Brien said.

Reasons include:

  • Those in need aren’t getting access to the vaccine because of a lack of public health systems.
  • In communities with widespread access, people’s confidence in vaccines is lower after a surge in misinformation about them in general, and measles in particular.

“This is a very high concern for us because families, parents are really vulnerable to misinformation,” O’Brien said.

In 2018, the countries with the highest incidence of the disease were Congo, Liberia, Madagascar, Somalia and Ukraine, together accounting for almost half of the cases worldwide.

“The fact that any child dies from a vaccine-preventable disease like measles is frankly an outrage and a collective failure to protect the world’s most vulnerable children,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, WHO’s director general, said in a release. “To save lives, we must ensure everyone can benefit from vaccines, which means investing in immunization and quality health care as a right for all.”

On Thursday, the South Pacific nation of Samao closed all non-essential public and private services to combat a measles epidemic that’s killed 60 people, mostly babies and young children.

Medical teams in Samoa are going door to door to vaccine families that are susceptible, and the government has urged unvaccinated families to hang a red flag or cloth outside to signal for health.

In developed countries such the United States and Germany, measles is on the rise because people haven’t vaccinated for philosophical or religious reasons.

Since the start of 2019, Congo is having its largest measles outbreak in recent history, with more than 250,000 suspected cases and over 5,000 deaths, the WHO said.

While Congo’s Ebola outbreak has captured the world’s attention, the country’s other urgent health needs like measles must not be forgotten, said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s regional director for Africa.

A measles vaccination campaign has been launched to protect people in all of Congo’s provinces.

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