The number of measles cases reported around the world in the first three months of 2019 tripled compared to the same period last year. Importantly, the WHO points out, these figures are provisional and the reality is likely to be much higher.
“In just the first three months of 2019, there have been more than 110,000 measles cases reported worldwide, a figure that is up nearly 300 percent from the same period last year. And these numbers represent just a fraction of all the cases that occur,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and UNICEF head Henrietta Fore wrote in an opinion piece for CNN.
“By the time you finish reading this, we estimate that at least 40 people – most of them children – will be infected by this fast-moving, life-threatening disease.”
In the first quarter of the year, the WHO says 170 countries reported 112,163 measles cases, up from 28,124 reported by 163 countries between January and March last year. The WHO also estimates only one in 10 cases are reported, and that's just an average, which varies by region.
Outbreaks are being seen all over the world, with the highest numbers of cases reported in Madagascar, Brazil, Yemen, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Pakistan. In Madagascar, there have been 69,000 reported cases and over 1,200 people have died from the virus since October 2018. Ukraine has seen 72,000 cases and the Philippines reports 19,000 cases. Africa has seen a 700 percent rise in cases reported in 2019 so far, Europe a 300 percent rise, the Eastern Mediterranean 100 percent, the Americas 60 percent, and Southeast Asia 40 percent.
According to the WHO, for several years the global coverage of first doses of the measles vaccine has stalled at 85 percent, nowhere near the 95 percent coverage needed to ensure the virus doesn't get a hold. Second dose coverage, while increasing, is still only at 67 percent.
Largely, this is down to access, where outbreaks are occurring in countries that don’t have strong health care systems, and poverty and conflict hinder children’s access to basic vaccinations.
However, the spike in numbers, the WHO says, is partly due to the high number of measles cases increasingly being reported in countries, such as the US, Israel, Thailand, and the Philippines, that have already eliminated measles, have the infrastructure and facilities to vaccinate all of its citizens, and previously had high vaccination coverage.
“[W]hile parents in many countries are clamoring for vaccines, public uncertainty about the necessity and safety of vaccination threatens gains elsewhere,” Ghebreyesus and Fore write.
“This uncertainty can be fueled by the proliferation of confusing and contradictory information online. Dishonesty and distortions about vaccines are nothing new. But in today's digital age, myths can spread as fast and far as a computer virus.”
It's not just the MMR vaccine taking a hit. Misinformation about vaccines for HPV, Diptheria, chicken pox, and Tetanus means cases are popping up in places they haven't been seen for decades. This year, the WHO added anti-vaxxers to its annual list of the top 10 biggest threats facing world health for the first time, while the World Economic Forum added "unnecessary spread of infectious disease" to its own 2019 top 10 threats report. The message is clear: the known dangers of not vaccinating far outweigh any perceived dangers.