Anti-vaccination sentiment leads to trebling of cases of measles

By Anne Gulland, Global Health Security Correspondent

THE number of cases of measles trebled in the first three months of this year compared with the same period in 2018, according to figures from the World Health Organisation.

Globally, 112,163 cases were reported between January and March. In the same time frame last year it was 28,124.

While the figures are not complete, with some countries only filing data for January and February, WHO says they indicate a “clear trend”, driven by poor rates of vaccination. It fears the actual number is higher as it estimates only a tenth of cases are reported.

112,163

The number of cases of measles recorded between January and March. Last year in the same period it was just 28,124

The explosion in figures comes amid growing concern over the rise of anti-vaccine sentiment around the world, fuelled by factors including distrust of authority, religious objections and the spread of fake news on social media.

The WHO said this year that vaccine hesitancy was one of the top health risks facing the world alongside threats such as air pollution and obesity.

The biggest outbreaks were seen in the WHO’s African region, which recorded a 700 per cent rise. Madagascar has been fighting a huge number of measles cases, with 46,000 in the first three months of this year, compared with 23,000 for the whole of 2019.

In Europe, the number has risen by 300 per cent year on year, driven by an increase in the number of cases in Ukraine – 25,000 in the first three months of 2019, compared with 8,700 in the same period last year.

Countries battling the measles outbreaks include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, the Philippines and Sudan, causing many deaths, mainly among children.

Measles is a highly contagious disease and in 2017 – the latest year for which mortality figures were available – it is thought to have caused 100,000 deaths. Even in high-income countries, up to a quarter of patients end up in hospital and the disease can lead to lifelong disability, including brain damage, blindness and hearing loss.

Despite the fact there is a safe and effective vaccine, immunisation rates have stalled at 85 per cent globally. Rates need to be at 95 per cent to protect the population – so-called “herd immunity” – says the WHO.

There has also been a spike in the number of cases in countries where there are high rates of vaccination, including the US, Israel, Thailand and Tunisia, as the disease spreads fast among clusters of unvaccinated people.

Authorities in New York have taken the unprecedented step of calling for mandatory vaccinations after an outbreak in the ultra Orthodox Jewish community, where vaccination coverage is generally low.

The city cannot legally physically force someone to get a vaccination but officials said people who ignore the order could be fined $1,000 (£767).

Grahame White