A Resurgence of Measles Killed More Than 200,000 People Last Year

Public health experts worry that vaccine availability will be further stalled by the Covid-19 pandemic

A woman in the Philippines sits with her four year old son as he receives a measles vaccine from a nurse in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
But since 2010, the percentage of children around the world receiving the first vaccine has plateaued at around 85 percent; only 71 percent receive the second dose. Jess Seldon/Department for International Development via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a harrowing report, stating that deaths caused by measles are up nearly 50 percent since 2016, reports Aimee Cunningham for Science News.

Despite there being a highly effective vaccine, measles—an airborne virus that attacks the respiratory system in children—caused 207,500 deaths in 2019. In total, 869,770 cases were reported last year, the highest numbers seen in nearly 25 years, reports Thomas Mulier for Bloomberg.

"This is a really important setback and a tragic setback, because we’ve had a safe and effective measles vaccine since the early 1960s," William Moss, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, tells Science News. "We had made enormous progress."

Nearly three quarters of worldwide cases occurred in nine countries that experienced widespread outbreaks among children: Georgia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kazakhstan, Madagascar, North Macedonia, Samoa, Tonga and Ukraine, according to the report.

"These data send a clear message that we are failing to protect children from measles in every region of the world," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says in a statement.

The vaccine comes in two doses that are 97 percent effective at preventing the virus, but to stop outbreaks altogether, 95 percent of a community must be vaccinated, reports Science News. Since 2010, the percentage of children around the world receiving the first vaccine has plateaued at around 85 percent, with only 71 percent receive the second dose, reports Jan Hoffman for the New York Times. A failure to properly vaccinate children on schedule ignited the resurgence of measles, reports Kate Kelland for Reuters.

"We are still missing a large proportion of kids in areas beyond the reach of health services—rural, or in urban slums, or where there is armed conflict," Robin Nandy, chief of immunization for UNICEF tells the Times.

So far this year, the number of measles cases has dropped, likely as a result of the precautions taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19, reports Bloomberg. But public health experts aren't getting their hopes up—they fear that the cases have been underreported as healthcare systems across the globe are strained. Additionally, 94 million people are at risk for missing the measles vaccine because 26 countries paused vaccination campaigns as a result of the pandemic, the Times reports. But public health experts warn that it's more important than ever for vaccines to be available and accessible.

"What’s scary now is that our essential public health workers have been refocused from diagnosing, testing and reporting suspected measles cases to Covid-19," Robb Linkins, an epidemiologist at the CDC, tells the Times. "With measles, you have to be relentless."

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