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Global measles cases spike 30 percent: WHO

November 29, 2018

A jump in measles cases is worrying health experts as outbreaks ravage countries and regions that had eliminated the deadly disease. Conflict, poverty and misinformation about vaccines are threatening years of progress.

Image: Colourbox

Reported measles cases surged globally in 2017, driven by misinformation about vaccines and lack of access to immunization in some regions, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday.

There were some 173,000 officially reported measles cases worldwide in 2017, a spike of more than 30 percent from the previous year. However, the actual number of cases is estimated at 6.7 million as many go unreported, WHO said.

Read more: Nobel Prize winner zur Hausen: "The low vaccination rate is a great scandal!"

There were an estimated 110,000 deaths, mostly of children, linked to the vaccine-preventable disease last year. Through November 2018, measles cases are already 10 percent higher than all of 2017.

"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," said Soumya Swaminathan, deputy director general for programs at the WHO.

"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 added.

The highly contagious, deadly disease can also cause brain infections, pneumonia and permanent vision loss.

Europeans complacent

Europeans have underestimated the risks of measles and some parents falsely believe anti-vaccine misinformation, according to the UN health agency.

Martin Friede of the WHO Department of Vaccination said many parents do not take the danger of measles seriously as infections have declined. 

"We become victims of our own success," he said.

Read more: Russian trolls 'promoting discord' over vaccines 

Germany and Russia were among the countries that experienced measles outbreaks last year, while the political and economic crisis in Venezuela has led to a soaring number of cases. The three countries lost certification for having interrupted transmission, WHO said. Measles elimination is defined as the absence of endemic measles virus transmission for more than 12 months.

In Germany, there were 929 official cases of measles, according to the National Verification Commission on Measles/Rubella. Unlike Germany, 37 out of 53 European states managed to eliminate measles.

Vaccinations: Protection or risk?

Vaccine coverage stalled

Conflicts and displacement of people have also contributed to measles outbreaks, and low immunization rates in pockets of Africa are driving a global resurgence of measles, the WHO said.

Global vaccine coverage for the first dose of measles vaccine has stalled at 85 percent in recent years, while 95 percent is needed to prevent outbreaks, WHO said. Second dose coverage is only 67 percent.

But there has also been much progress since 2000 when there were 850,000 measles cases. Since the start of the century, more than 21 million lives have been saved by immunizations, WHO said.

"We have a safe and effective vaccine," said WHO immunization expert Ann Lindstrand. "This is not rocket science, we know what to do."

cw/sms (AFP, dpa)

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